Tick-Born Diseases Rising
By Mark McCollough

What did we do to deserve this? This was a particularly bad year for ticks for those who spend time in the outdoors. Even a stroll through the yard can result in the creepy-crawlies climbing up your pant leg. Just when we think the situation is bad, it gets worse. Like the Ten Plagues of Egypt, new ticks and new tick-born diseases are on the increase and may be about to appear in your neighborhood.

First, the bad news about Lyme disease. Many of you have probably been tested, treated for, or diagnosed with Lyme disease. Any of you who have Lyme disease know how serious the disease can be, and how difficult it can be to treat. For the last decade, Maine has been among the top ten states in the United States for incidence of Lyme disease. In 2016 Maine moved ahead to the worse state in the country with confirmed Lyme disease cases of 86 per 100,000 residents in 2016. Rural New Englanders spend lots of time in grassy and wooded areas where disease-carrying blacklegged or deer ticks live. Intermediate hosts, white-tailed deer, mice, and other small mammals, are literally dropping ticks at our door step.

There are 14 species of ticks in Maine, but only three regularly bite humans Š blacklegged or deer ticks, dog ticks, and woodchuck ticks. I was bitten by the latter for the first time this year Š yippee a new tick experience. In addition to Lyme disease, ticks carry a host of nasty bacterial diseases including babesiosis, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. These diseases are all on the rise. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that ticks now account for over three quarters of the vector born disease cases in the United States, far more than diseases carried by mosquitoes.

As if that werenÕt enough, new tick-born diseases are entering the Northeast Region. Powassan virus is transmitted to humans by infected ticks. Over the last decade, about 100 cases of powassan have been reported, mostly in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, including a lethal case in Maine. Signs and symptoms of infection can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss. Long-term neurologic problems may occur. There is no specific treatment, but people with severe illness often need to be hospitalized to receive respiratory support, intravenous fluids, or medications to reduce swelling in the brain. Yikes.

All you hunters, imagine what it would be like being allergic to red meat? No more moose burgers, no more pork? The lone star tick is increasing and expanding its range in the Northeast. An increasing number of people are developing allergies to red meat, and doctors believe that the culprit is tick bites from the lonestar tick. Over 3,000 cases of red meat allergy have been diagnosed. Bites from the lone star tick can trigger an immune response to alpha gal, a sugar found in beef, lamb, venison and pork. Symptoms occur about 3 to 8 hours after eating a meal of red meat, and include severe whole-body itching, hives, gastrointestinal upset, and respiratory distress.

With a warming climate, the lone star tick is not the only species on the move. The National Wildlife Health Center reported earlier this summer that a new tick has arrived in North America from Asia. Haemaphysalis longicornus (long-horned tick) was first documented in New Jersey in 2013 and has since been found in Virginia, West Virginia and Arkansas. This could be a nasty development. In Asia, it severely infests livestock leading to weakness and even death. Will it affect North American wildlife in the same way? It has already been found on white-tailed deer, raccoons, and opossums. Worse yet, it is known to carry many human tick-born bacterial diseases including diseases unique to Asia. It is not known whether any exotic tick diseases were imported with this tick. Females have the ability to reproduce by parthenogenesis; no males needed!

In November of 2014, Maine voters approved a bond referendum that enabled the construction of a new lab for in-state disease testing of tick specimens that is nearly completed in Orono. This should help keep track of how new species of ticks and tick-born diseases are affecting wildlife and us.

What to do? IÕve found that pulling out ticks, trips to the doctor, and sometimes rounds of antibiotics are a nuisance. I grew up in Pennsylvania and lived three decades in Maine without ever seeing a tick, now they are crawling on me almost daily. Jim Dill, pest management specialist at University of Maine Cooperative Extension, recently spoke to the Penobscot County Conservation Association. His advice for the most effective defense against ticks is to select light-colored clothing for outdoor use and treat it with permethrin, a synthetic molecule similar to those found in natural pyrethrum, which is taken from the chrysanthemum flower. It kills ticks or other insects when it comes in contact with them. Sprayed on clothing and allowed to dry, SawyerÕs Permethrin, according to the manufacturer, can last up to six weeks including six washings (gentle hand washing and drying extends use). Factory pre-treated permethrin clothing lasts for 70 washings if you donÕt want to spray your own clothing.

So I am changing my tick behavior from annoyance to aggression. I purchased permethrin and will treat lots of our clothing for the next few years. A relatively small price to pay when considering the serious tick-born illnesses my family and I could get while enjoying the outdoors.

Mark McCollough regularly finds deer, dog, and now woodchuck ticks at his home in Hamden, Maine. He can be reached at ellmcc25@yahoo.com

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