Public-health officials say ticks are emerging earlier and staying active longer because of changes in climate and land use, resulting in a rising risk of infection carried by the parasites.
“There are more tick-borne disease cases every year,” Dr. John Aucott, director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center, said during a June 8 Association of Health Care Journalists webcast. “This is an insidious epidemic. It hasn’t been as dramatic as Covid-19, so it has crept up on us.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the total number of tick-borne diseases reported to the agency rose by 125% to 50,865 in 2019 from 22,527 in 2004. These numbers are generally considered to be underestimated because most aren’t reported to the agency. For example, the CDC estimated that between 2010 and 2018 the number of Americans with Lyme was closer to 467,000 based on an analysis of health insurance records.
Anna Pasternak, a tick researcher at the University of Kentucky, said the Kentucky Tick Surveillance Program has only been collecting information on ticks in Kentucky since 2019 and doesn’t have enough year-to-year data to confidently say that Kentucky is seeing more ticks and tick-borne disease cases or say that they are emerging earlier from winter hibernation and staying active longer.
“However, I think important things to note are that 1) we do have ticks active in the winter months in Kentucky and 2) the prime months for tick activity so far seem to be April through August,” Pasternak said in an e-mail. “This, of course, doesn’t mean that you only need to be wary of ticks in these months, just that these months are when I have collected the majority of ticks each year.”
Kentucky provides a perfect home for ticks, with its warm, humid summer days, an abundance of wooded, leafy areas in both rural and urban places, and plenty of hosts to feast upon.
Ticks can carry pathogens that can cause a number of illnesses. In Kentucky, the most common tick-borne diseases are Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and Lyme disease.
Another disease caused by the lone-star tick that is increasing is called alpha-gal syndrome, which causes an allergy to red meat. Research published in the January 2021 in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri had the highest number of positive cases per 100,000 people.
An article that examined current information about this syndrome, published in last year’s Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, says up to 3% of the population has this condition, the Daily Mailreports.
A new tick to watch for is the Asian longhorned tick, which was first found in the U.S. in 2017. Kentucky is one of 17 states that this tick has been found in. Research is ongoing to determine if an how often these ticks are able to pass on germs that are harmful to humans and can make them ill, says the CDC.
Also of concern is that symptoms of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases — like headache, fatigue, fever and rashes — can mimic Covid-19 symptoms, which could result in a delayed diagnosis and risk for complications.
Looking forward, progress is being made on the development of a Lyme disease vaccine, as well as other technologies and treatments to prevent the disease.
“Pfizer and its partner Valnevaannounced in April 2022 that they had completed Phase 2 of a clinical trial of a Lyme disease vaccine, setting on the path for a larger Phase 3 trial. Two Yale researchers have developed a vaccine based on mRNA technology (the platform used to create the Covid-19 vaccine) to reduce the risk of developing Lyme disease. CRISPR technology has been used to edit the gene of black-legged ticks, which may help scientists with developing vaccines and treatments. Researchers are investigating vaccinating mice that carry ticks, and genetically engineering mice to prevent them from becoming reservoirs of diseases that ticks ingest when they feed on mice,” Bara Vaida writes in a tip-sheet on tick-reporting for AHCJ.
The best protections against tick-borne disease is to not get bitten. Here are some ways to protect yourself from ticks:
Avoid grassy, wooded and leaf-covered areas
Keep grass and shrubs trimmed and cleared away
Walk in the center of walking trails
Wear light-colored clothes, which make it easier to spot ticks
Wear long pants tucked into boots and tuck in your shirts
Use tick repellent that has the repellent DEET or picaridin
Treat your clothes with permethrin, which repels and kills ticks
Do a body check along the way and at the end of each day
Check your pets and equipment for ticks
Shower within two hours of potential exposure, if possible
To kill ticks on clothing, tumble dry for 10 minutes or wash them in hot water. If clothes can’t be washed in hot water, tumble dry for 90 minutes on regular heat or 60 minutes on high.