2007-08-02 / Front Page

A dramatic surge seen in the island's deer tick population

By Michaela Kennedy

Ticked off North end residents displayed their concerns about a growing tick problem that has caused Lyme disease for many of them. Photo by Michaela Kennedy Ticked off North end residents displayed their concerns about a growing tick problem that has caused Lyme disease for many of them. Photo by Michaela Kennedy Deer ticks are down in number to date this year across Rhode Island, according to sampling studies taken recently through the University of Rhode Island. Counts of the noted carriers of Lyme disease, however, are significantly higher in parts of Newport County, and in particular, Jamestown.

Congressman Patrick Kennedy spoke about the health danger Monday morning at Veterans' Memorial Square at East Ferry. Together with Thomas Mather, director of the Center for Vector-Borne Disease at URI, Kennedy stressed the importance of heightened awareness to protect against Lyme disease infection. "Rhode Island consistently has the second highest rate of Lyme disease nationally, and the numbers have tripled in the last 15 years," Kennedy said.

Sampling done near Beavertail State Park showed the tick count in that area jumped 842 percent since last year. A 50-percent increase in tick numbers was found at a creek on North Main Road.

A standardized protocol for tick sampling used by the URI research team is to drag white flannel cloths over the ground in wooded sites, according to Mather. Ticks grab the cloth, hoping to find a warm, blood meal. The researchers count the critters every 30 seconds for a total of 45-minutes at each location. "We collect thousands of ticks each year, and this surveillance effort has provided us with very reliable data regarding changes in tick encounter risk," Mather explained.

Kennedy also said prevention was important. "Much more needs to be done to educate Newport area residents about the risks posed by ticks and the simple strategies we all can employ to protect ourselves from being bitten."

Mather advised daily self checks to ward against the tiny bugs. "Ticks develop a sneaky way of crawling up the body," he said. Seven people in the waterfront audience raised their hands when asked how many had been stricken with the illness.

Mather continued that a blood test was not necessarily an effective diagnostic screening for Lyme disease. A second blood test is needed after three weeks for comparison of the white blood cell count, as well as a doctor's diagnosis. Mather advised the best defense was prevention, and suggested using insect repellent that contained permethrin. When asked whether it was a safe chemical, he answered, "The product has been used by the military for 20 years."

Earlier in the season, Conservation Commissioner Mark Baker had warned against spraying permethrin in large quantities until more information on its environmental and health effects were known.

Mather suggested some products that worked well to prevent ticks on the body and on pets. When asked if Mather received monetary compensation for promoting the products, Kennedy stepped in to defend the scientist and his research team. He stressed that the biotechnology innovation being developed may not only save lives but become an income-generating revenue for the state in the future. He advised at present to focus on solutions, not on monetary compensation.

Kennedy noted that he and Sen. Jack Reed secured $440,000 over the past five years to support tick-bite prevention research and outreach in the state. He pointed out, however, the money was from federal funds, and the state has not supported the fight against tick-borne diseases. He encouraged the audience to contact state representatives or the governor "to complain that we have not made this more of a priority."

Kennedy also noted that he has personal friends who are laid up from the disease. "Unfortunately, this is not a big deal on the national level, but it definitely is a big issue locally," he said.

After the presentation, a woman who remained anonymous admitted that a tick was found in her vagina during a routine medical checkup. "I was shocked. At first my doctor thought it was a polyp," she said.

According to information provided by Brown University, Lyme disease causes functional, chemical, and structural changes to the brain and alters almost every organ system of the body. In 1975, Lyme disease was classified as a new disease in response to about 50 cases of pediatric arthritis in the town of Lyme, Conn. Deer ticks transmit the agents causing Lyme disease, babesiosis and anaplasmosis.

The URI Center for Vector- Borne Disease provides information on effective strategies for protecting themselves, their yards, and their pets at its Web site, www. tickencounter.org

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