Tick-borne illnesses on the rise

Published 4:06 pm Friday, June 22, 2012

With temperatures soaring into the mid 90s, winter is nothing more than a distant memory.

But the effects of the mild winter still remain in the form of an increase in the state’s tick population.

As a result, the Alabama Department of Public Health has reported an increase in the number of cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a tick-borne illness.

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The disease, if untreated, can be fatal. Symptoms include fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting and muscle pain. A rash may also develop, but is often absent in the first few days, and in some patients, never develops.

Ticks pose a risk to humans because they can transmit diseases such as Lyme diseases. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that the number of people infected with Lyme disease might have increased threefold in recent years.

The symptons for Lyme disease are similar to that of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but a bull’s-eye-patterned rash often accompanies it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1992 to 2010, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease was nearly 23,000, and there were another 7,600 probable cases in 2010. Other tick-borne diseases, such as babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and anaplasmosis are also on the rise.

Greenville veterinarian Josh Gardner said he has seen an increase in the number of tick-borne illnesses in animals that have been brought into his clinic.

“We have seen an increase in Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as other tick-borne illnesses,” he said. “I’ve already diagnosed two cases of anaplasmosis. In 15 years of being around vets, I’ve never seen that.”

Gardner said he believes that the extremely dry weather the state has seen in the last five years is a contributing factor.

“Ticks reproduce in dry environments,” he said. “As dry as it’s been the last five years, we’ve had an increase in the number of ticks. I honestly don’t know if we’re seeing an increase in tick-borne illnesses or just an increase in the number of ticks and as a result a higher frequency of tick bites.”

Dee W. Jones, Alabama state public health veterinarian, said it’s unclear if the tick population in Alabama has grown because of insufficient records tracking the population, but did warn Alabamians to take precautions to avoid contact with ticks.

Such precautions include:

*Keeping grass cut short in yards and avoiding overgrown areas.

*Wearing long sleeves and pants to prevent ticks from accessing your skin.

*After spending time outdoors, thoroughly checking yourself, your children and your pets for ticks.

*If you find ticks, remove them immediately. Pinch the tick near its mouth and pull it out slowly in a continuous motion. Don’t twist the tick because doing so may leave mouth parts embedded in the skin.

Gardner said it’s also important to keep a check on pets.

“You need to be checking your pets regularly, and you need to have something on them that will keep the ticks away,” he said. “A lot of people will dip their pets and that kills the ticks that are on them, but it doesn’t keep them from coming back.”

Gardner recommends using a topical medication or tick collar.