New reports are showing serious illnesses caused by tick bites are drastically on the rise all over North America and public awareness is the key to prevention.
A report released on November 14th by the Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, a group established in 2016 by U.S. Congress, summarized the state of the issue south of the border. Their key message will not be a shock to most cottagers here: that tick-borne diseases are serious, even potentially deadly, and are on the rise. What might be a surprise however, is how much the scope of the problem has increased over the last two and a half decades. The report states that ”The number of U.S. counties now considered to be of high incidence for Lyme disease has increased by more than 300% in the Northeastern states and by approximately 250% in the North-Central states.”
Here in Canada, illnesses caused by pathogens spread by ticks have also been sharply increasing. The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported that cases of Lyme disease, the most common illness associated with ticks, have increased from 144 reported cases in 2009 to 2,025 cases in 2017, a 1,306% increase in only 8 years. In part this is attributed to increased awareness of the disease and updated definitions of diagnoses.
Lyme disease is the main cause of concern for tick-borne illness Canada. There are other serious illnesses passed on through ticks, such as ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus, but they appear in such low numbers they are not monitored on a national scale.
This sharp increase in tick-related disease can be linked to an increase in tick populations themselves. The black-legged tick, often called the deer tick, is the primary carrier of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
“The biggest thing we see in regards to increase in tick population is climate change,” Curtis Russel, senior program coordinator at Ontario Public Health says. “The warm weather is often better for the hosts that the ticks feed on like the mice and deer so there are a lot of intricate factors in nature that play a part in the increasing tick population. ”
Warmer weather and more hosts animals means more and more ticks. “Ticks need a suitable habitat, small host mammals in the early stages of the tick’s lifecycle like squirrels, voles, and mice. Eventually ticks also need plenty of medium sized mammals for hosts when they reach maturity, like white tailed deer,” says Dr. Robbin Lindsay, a researcher at the national microbiology lab in Winnipeg. Ticks need moisture to survive so they often thrive in deciduous forests, clinging to bushes and leaves of deciduous trees on the forest floors. Once established, ticks act like burr bushes according to Russel, latching on to unweary hosts that brush up against them.
The Tick-Borne Disease Working Group says the way forward lies through prevention, accurate diagnoses, and treatment. Currently there is no vaccine available for Lyme disease, and the report identified diagnostic techniques for early diagnosis—when treatment is most effective—as a research priority.
In the meantime, our best bet is to take prevention seriously:
1. Limit tick habitat through landscaping: Having hard surfaces like gravel or sand instead of bushes next to the social areas at your cottage or home, like the patio or your children’s swing set, will limit the tick’s chances to latch on to you. “This will create a safe zone that won’t allow the ticks to hang out where you and I would hang out,” says Janet Sperling, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta and board member on the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.
2. Prevent exposure: Before going on a hike or doing yard work in tick country, apply bug repellent with DEET and wear long sleeved and light coloured clothing.
3. Monitor for exposure: After spending time in tick habitat, perform a tick check. Experts agree that if you think you see a tick on you or have suffered a tick bite, act right away. “If you see a tick, remove it immediately,” says Sperling. Ticks can spread the disease within a 72 hour period if it contains the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Tick saliva, which carries a separate virus called the Powassan virus, enables the spread of the disease; they can transmit the virus within 15 minutes. But according to Sperling, this time frame isn’t a reason to panic.“This gives you an opportunity to remove it and it makes tick checks very effective,” says Sperling.
Sperling also advises that once you’ve removed the tick, store it in a container or bag in the freezer so that when you get checked the tick can be examined for the bacteria. Running your clothing through the dryer will also kill any ticks that have latched on to clothing. If your clothes are dry, about 20 minutes should suffice, but if your clothes contain any moisture, Sperling recommends throwing them in for longer.
Illnesses like Lyme disease are no longer just something that happens to someone else. If recent trends are any indicator, Canadians will have to increasingly become aware of ticks in relation to where they live or cottage and be prepared to act accordingly.
“The best thing is education. Knowing that there are problems with ticks in Canada is the biggest change you can make,” says Sperling.