2009-07-02 / Front Page

High tick counts raise tick-borne illness concerns

By Eileen M. Daly

The number of ticks in Rhode Island has increased 54 percent since this time last year, according to Thomas Mather, professor of entomology and director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector Borne Disease.

Recent weather conditions have created an ideal environment for ticks, Mather said. In studies conducted at the center, Mather found that ticks could not sustain themselves for more than 10 hours when humidity levels were below 85 percent. If humidity levels reach 85 percent or greater, however, within an eight-hour period, the ticks were much more likely to survive, he said.

“Ticks don’t care much about temperature, what they really care about is humidity,” Mather said. These last few weeks of dreary, high-humidity days have created what Mather refers to as a kind of “perfect storm” of conditions for an increase in tick-borne illnesses. Since the next dry sunny days will likely drive people outdoors, this will create ideal conditions for the spread of tick-borne illnesses including Lyme disease, babesiosis and anaplasmosis, Mather said.

Information on the Tick Encounter Resource Center’s website states: “According to Mather’s tick abundance database, the most extensive database of its kind in the world, when Rhode Island has experienced a 50 percent increase in tick abundance, there has been a corresponding 35 percent increase in reported cases of Lyme disease.”

Dr. Joseph England, a physician with Jamestown Family Practice, said he has not seen an increase in Lyme disease cases as of yet, but he also expects that to change when the weather gets better.

“We haven’t seen an increase yet,” he said, “but that is directly related to people not being outside much right now.”

Treating tick-borne illnesses

England emphasized the fact that most cases of Lyme disease are treated quite successfully with a 10-day course of the antibiotic Doxcycline. “It is only the cases that are not treated promptly that develop problems down the line,” England said. “We hear a lot more about Lyme disease than we do about other tick-borne illnesses like babesiosis, anaplasmosis and even Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which can be much more dangerous and even fatal,” England said.

Prevention and treatment are important in preventing the spread of tick-borne illnesses, according to both Mather and England. England was careful to point out that deer tick bites do not always leave a bull’s eye or target-like rash.

“Very often the rash is a red full circle,” England said. He also pointed out that all tick bites, not just bites from deer ticks, are potentially harmful. “If headache and fever develop after a known tick bite (within one week to 10 days,) you should let your health care provider know,” he said.

England also recommends checking for all types of ticks after being outside. “The fact is, ticks are everywhere, in the front yard, everywhere,” he said. He recommends checking for ticks as soon as you get inside and removing them immediately. “If you remove a tick immediately, you’ve probably prevented the transmission of disease,” England said.

Mather also recommends that all Rhode Islanders take preventative measures and emphasized the fact that, since Jamestown continues to be an area of concern regarding tick abundance, it is particularly important for residents here to take preventive measures to prevent the spread of illness.

Prevention is key

Mather recommends taking the following preventative measures outlined on the Tick Encounter Website: Think TICK, take ACTION:

Tweezers: Use pointed tweezers for safe removal.

Inspect: Check your body at least once a day.

Clothing repellent: Use clothing infused with permethrin—a safe, effective tick repellent.

Kill the critters: Spray yards and other areas where people gather.

For more information on the prevention of tick-borne illness, visit www.tickencounter.org.

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