Tick-pocalypse? Nope. But Preventing Tick-borne Diseases Still Key

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Ticks

A deer tick on a blade of grass. Deer tick nymphs, which are present in large numbers now, are the size of a poppy seed. CDC PHOTO / ANNA PEREZ

Despite a few dire predictions, 2018 probably won't see any great surge in the numbers of disease-carrying ticks on Cape Cod. But experts say it’s as important as ever to prevent tick bites, especially in these first days of summer.

Deer ticks, which can transmit Lyme and other dangerous diseases, are at a particularly dangerous stage of their life cycles in late spring and early summer. Adult ticks, which were present mostly in the fall and winter, have been replaced by deer ticks in their nymph stage, where they are much smaller – about the size of a poppy seed.

“Nymphs are responsible for about 85 percent of tick-borne diseases,” said Barnstable County Entomologist Larry Dapsis, the deer tick project coordinator for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. That’s simply because they’re much more difficult to spot on clothing and exposed skin. They’re found mostly at ground level, and prefer shady, damp, wooded areas like gardens and the edges of lawns.

The Cape is home predominantly to three types of ticks: deer ticks, dog ticks, and most recently discovered, lone star ticks. Together, they can transmit not only Lyme disease, but also babesiosis, anaplasmosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other diseases.

“Two-thirds of the people who get tick bites are likely getting them in their backyard,” Dapsis said.

On May 1, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that illnesses from mosquito, tick and flea bites have tripled in the U.S. since 2004. The nation is not fully prepared for the growing number and rapid spread of these diseases, federal experts said. But those numbers don’t translate well to the local risk from ticks, because they include illnesses like the mosquito-borne Zika virus, observed in places like faraway U.S. territories, Dapsis said.

Still, the risk to people on Cape Cod is a real one, and it’s greater than just the risk of Lyme disease. Of all the ticks tested last year through a cooperative program with Cape Cod Healthcare and UMass Amherst, 13 percent were hosting more than one disease, he said.

“There were sometimes four different pathogens found in the same tick,” he said. That means that people getting just a single tick bite are at risk of several sicknesses. It also means that family doctors need to be aware of overlapping symptoms.

“Co-infection is a big deal,” Dapsis said.

People bitten by a tick can help doctors with a diagnosis by having the tick tested using the low-cost service at www.TickReport.com. Thanks to a subsidy from Cape Cod Healthcare, the usual $50 fee is just $15 for Cape Cod residents, and results are usually available in around three days. After carefully removing the tick with a fine pair of tweezers, pulling back steadily on the head, people can put the tick in a zippered sandwich bag with a small, damp piece of paper towel and a piece of paper bearing the five-digit order number provided by the website.

More and more people are taking advantage of the service, and people frequently call Dapsis’ office to ask how to submit a tick, he said. Last year, the program ran out of grant money in the first week of June, even though the money was expected to last until September, based on the number of ticks tested in previous years.

“The submission rate has gone up faster than we thought,” he said.

There’s more evidence that public outreach efforts are working. Dapsis said the best way to prevent tick bites is to wear clothing treated with permethrin, a chemical that kills ticks and remains effective even after clothes are washed several times. It is now carried by major garden centers, which sometimes have trouble keeping it in stock. “The word is getting out,” he said.

Companies that provide perimeter yard spraying for ticks are seeing brisk businesses, he added. Dapsis said he spoke to one such company recently.

“Their business has quadrupled. They’ve had to buy another truck,” he said.

In addition to conducting programs in the schools and speaking before groups like the Cape Cod Landscape Association, Dapsis regularly fields calls from the public – day or night – at 508-375-6642. “I am always open for business,” he said.

The best proof that outreach is working comes from the Harvard School of Medicine, which found that Barnstable is the only county in the state where the incidence of tick-borne diseases is not increasing.

“They attribute that to our education program,” he said. Plymouth County is now following Barnstable’s lead and has hired an entomologist who will do tick education. It’s a good investment, Dapsis said.

“You don’t have to prevent too many cases of Lyme disease to pay for somebody’s salary and benefits,” he said.


Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com