Experts seeing rise in tick population, threat of disease

lfabian@macon.comJune 8, 2010 

Perched atop blades of grass or taller vegetation, ticks wait for a feast to walk by.

Standing on their back legs with their front legs outstretched, the blood-thirsty critters are ready to latch on at the first hint of carbon dioxide or heat alert from their infrared sensors.

Mercer associate professor of biology Alan Smith actively seeks out ticks for research.

In recent weeks, he has been teaching seventh-grade students at the Amerson Water Works Park on the Ocmulgee River about all forms of wildlife.

“I picked up a lot of ticks there without even trying,” Smith said. “I think the populations are pretty abundant.”

Last year, Smith struggled to pick up samples for his research but recently collected 100 of them from around Lake Tobesofkee.

He blames the wet spring and an abundance of deer and mice, he said.

“Data shows when the deer and especially the mouse populations are up, then the tick populations goes up,” Smith said.

Mice are crucial to the tick’s two-year life cycle. After hatching from eggs, the tiny arachnids must feast on a blood meal to carry them through each stage of development from larva to nymph and adult. Most ticks cut their baby teeth on mice, which are close to the ground.

The bloated little bulb you might discover dining away on your DNA is likely an adult enjoying her last meal. Left alone to gorge, she will eventually fall off in about a week. As the female tick nears the end of her life, she may lay 3,000 eggs that hatch on the ground.

Larva, which are about the size of the period at end of this sentence, don’t pose a threat as they have yet to come in contact with an animal that may be carrying a strain of disease. It’s when they reach the nymph stage, or the size of a tiny freckle, that they pose the biggest danger to humans.

Because the ticks are so small, they may go undetected for days, giving ample time to pass along bacteria to their host.

Smith says if people can get a tick off of their body within 24 hours, they’re fairly safe.

Liz Schmitz, director of the Georgia Lyme Disease Association, warns that may not be the case if a tick is improperly removed.

Squeezing a tick’s midsection can actually pump more bacteria into your body and increase the risk of illness, she said.

The proper way to remove a tick is to use tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull straight back without twisting.

Schmitz said she acquired Lyme disease from a tick that was attached to her for just four hours. Her husband removed it by using a hot match stick immediately after the flame was blown out. The heat caused the tick to spit bacteria into her that gradually began to make her sick.

About a month after the bite, she began to feel dizzy and shrugged it off as a sinus infection. Next, her elbow felt as though it was bruised, and she was diagnosed with cellulitis of an unknown origin. When she began to experience tingling sensations up and down her arms, suffer joint and muscle aches and was unable to get out of bed some mornings, doctors decided it was probably multiple sclerosis.

But Schmitz had always been healthy and couldn’t understand how she could have gotten so sick. Then she remembered the tick bite.

Now 20 years later, she is still fighting to raise awareness about tick-borne illnesses. Many health professionals believe Lyme disease is only prevalent in the northeastern United States and ignore the threat in Georgia, she said.

Part of the problem is that the test for Lyme disease is based on a northern strain of the disease associated with the deer tick and not enough research is being done on Georgia’s very aggressive Lone Star tick, Schmitz said.

“It just warrants investigation here,” she said. “I got this 20 years ago, and it’s still not funded. This is something that is huge that can potentially explain a lot of different diseases on our planet.”

Only in recent years have Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists been classifying southern tick-associated rash illness, which they say is similar to Lyme disease. But no one has identified the bacteria that causes it, Smith said.

A rash may develop within a week of a bite and expand out three inches or more. The skin inflammation may be accompanied by fatigue, fever, headache, muscle and joint pains.

Unlike Lyme disease, southern tick-associated rash illness has not been linked to any arthritic, neurological or chronic symptoms, according to the CDC Web site.

But Schmitz and Smith aren’t so sure, due to the lack of research. Plus, a Georgia Southern University expert has discovered similarities in the northern deer tick and the southern Lone Star, Smith said.

“If any of my students go out in the field and show sign of a rash, I tell them to get the antibiotic,” Smith said. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it makes you wonder how many people have these kinds of arthritic or rheumatoid conditions that are really undiagnosed Lyme disease.”

Bite prevention can be key to avoiding problems. Tick repellent can work if used according to directions. Plus tucking in shirts and covering the bottom of pants legs with socks can keep ticks from latching on.

If people get a tick attached to their body, they should remove it, place it in a plastic bag and store it in the freezer or in alcohol. Preserving the tick and noting where it likely was picked it up can be helpful if symptoms develop later, Schmitz said.

She suggests doing a thorough inspection of the body after spending time in the woods or tall grass. Be careful to check moist areas near elastic waistbands or bra straps. When shampooing hair, people should keep their fingers together while massaging the scalp to help sweep the head to feel for one of the little bloodsuckers.

If sitting on the ground, spread out a towel. People should wear light-colored clothes to help spot the tiny ticks before they can attach.

Schmitz also suggests washing clothing as soon as returning home or putting the clothes in a plastic bag. If it’s not time to do laundry, toss the clothes into a hot dryer for several minutes.

“That’ll kill them,” she said.

You can find more information about ticks and disease prevention at the association's Web site at www.GeorgiaLymeDisease.org.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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