The New York Times reported that while there probably aren’t more ticks, they are appearing one to two months earlier than usual. Because of increased tick activity, New York is already reporting more incidence of Lyme disease than last year at this time.There are reports of increasing incidence of another tick-borne disease called babesiosis.
Babesiosis (pronounced ‘buh-beezee-osis’) is a protozoan disease that is transmitted by the same ticks (Ixodes scapularis, or deer ticks) that transmit Lyme disease. Ticks are the vector, but the organism (Babesia microti and Babesia duncani) that causes babesiosis is a protozoan that can mimic symptoms of malaria. Most individuals infected by this protozoan appear to have few symptoms, but in immunocompromised individuals, this can be a severe, life-threatening infection. Since the ticks can transmit both organisms, we see the incidence of disease occurring in roughly the same areas of the country, predominantly the northeast.
Incidence of Rocky Mountain Spotted fever (RMSF) is also on the rise. The bacteria Rickettsia rickettsii, is transmitted by a different type of tick (genus Dermacentor or dog and wood ticks). A recent report from Tennessee indicates that there have been more than 38 cases so far this year, compared to six from the same time last year (FYI: newspapers are shouting that this is a 500% increase from last year, but again, it is 38 cases).
What to do to protect yourself? These diseases have no vaccine, so the only and best option is to constantly monitor for ticks and to wear insect repellent. For the deer tick, these can masquerade as specks of dirt, so you have to check pretty thoroughly. Dog and wood ticks are generally fairly noticeable. For most ticks associated disease, removing the tick early can prevent transmission. For RMSF, if you remove the tick within 4-10 hours of feeding you can stop transmission of bacteria.
To remove the tick, CAREFULLY, with a tweezers, gently pull until it releases. If you lose the head, that is ok, the bacteria are in the gut and you have removed that. Disinfect the area, put some topical antibiotic on the area, cover with a band aid. You will have a small area of inflammation (you still have a head in your skin, after all), but the main symptoms for Lyme disease: fever with a bulls-eye rash, and for RMSF: a fever with a rash starting on the extremities.
And on the bright side, one of my students pointed out that Brad Paisley tells us that checking for ticks can be fun!