Sister of first victim speaks out about rare disease’s Canadian connection

 

Published: October 20, 2013, 3:05 pm
 

It’s a rare but life-threatening infection spread to humans by tiny ticks encountered in the woods or backyard gardens. And this summer, a Powassan virus health scare in the U.S. prompted a New York senator, American medical authorities and even the New York Times to warn of an urgent need for better research, prevention and treatment strategies to combat a pathogen that’s on the rise — perhaps due to climate change — throughout the Great Lakes region.

But the virus that grabbed headlines south of the border in August has a tragic Canadian connection that explains its name and still haunts a Northern Ontario family that, in 1958, suffered the sudden loss of a four-year-old son and brother from what was then an unknown infectious agent.

At the same time, however, the child’s death gave science what remains its key weapon against the virus: a test developed by Canadian microbiologists to identify the deadly organism, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause fatal or crippling encephalitis — brain swelling — in about 30 per cent of those who develop symptoms.

For more than 50 years, …

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