Tick talks target Martha’s Vineyard elementary school students

Barnstable County public health nurse Deirdre Arvidson captured children's attention dressed as a giant tick in presentations she made about Lyme disease in schools Island-wide, including this one at Oak Bluffs School. — Photo by Ellen Berube

“There’s a giant tick,” a first-grader exclaimed as he recently walked into the Tisbury School gymnasium. But as he soon found, unlike most repulsive parasites of its kind, this one harbored helpful information instead of Lyme disease.

The giant tick was none other than Barnstable County public health nurse Deirdre Arvidson. She donned a costume complete with eight hairy legs to make presentations about ticks and Lyme disease to school children across Martha’s Vineyard on June 9 and 10.

Ms. Arvidson gave 10 presentations to elementary grade students in Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. The MV Tick-Borne Disease Committee (TBDC), made up of Island board of health members, physicians, and health and environmental management professionals, sponsored her presentations as part of a community health initiative.

“What do you know about ticks?” Ms. Arvidson asked first graders from teachers Abigail Hurlock’s and Barbara Lope’s classes during one of two presentations at Tisbury School.

Some children demonstrated a good grasp of basic facts, as Ms. Arvidson confirmed: “Ticks can bite you,” “They can suck your blood,” and “Some can give you diseases.”

A few others were off the mark. To the youngster that said, “Ticks can kill you,” Ms. Arvidson added the caveat, “Generally, they don’t.” And unlike bees, as she gently corrected another student, ticks don’t die when they bite you.

A collective “ooohhh” rose from the audience when Ms. Arvidson announced that, “Mama ticks can lay up to 3,000 eggs.”

She provided students with a tick identification card with illustrations of Deer and American dog ticks. Although not very common, she said that Lone Star ticks also are found on Martha’s Vineyard.

At the nymph stage this time of year, deer ticks are the size of a pencil dot or a freckle, Ms. Arvidson pointed out, which elicited a sea of raised eyebrows among her young audience.

A tick lives about two years and only eats about three times in its life, she said. For a first meal, a young tick usually feeds on a small woodland creature. The children made guesses — a deer, a rat, a spider? One came up with the correct answer, a mouse, which Ms. Arvidson further distinguished as the white-footed variety.

Ticks aren’t born with Lyme disease, she explained. Young deer ticks may pick up the germ from white-footed mice that they feed on and then transmit it to their next victim.

“Not all deer ticks will have the Lyme disease germ in them, but the thing is, you can’t tell which ones do,” Ms. Arvidson told the children. “That’s why it’s so important not to let yourself get bit by a tick.”

Advice for avoidance

Since ticks don’t like hot, dry places but do like tall grasses, bushes, and woods, she advised students to stay away from those areas. If they do walk through the woods, Ms. Arvidson suggested they wear light-colored long pants, which makes it easier to see small, dark-colored ticks, and to tuck the bottoms of their pants into their socks.

She also recommended insect spray, as long as parents or an adult apply it, and to wash it off at the end of the day.

“If you find a tick crawling on you, brush it off if you’re outside or remove it with a tissue if indoors,” Ms. Arvidson said.

She emphasized several times during the presentation that after being outdoors, children should check themselves for ticks every day, most easily done while in the bath or shower, before they go to bed. And don’t forget between the toes.

“A tick has to be attached to you for longer than one day in order for it to give you the Lyme disease germ,” Ms. Arvidson said. “So the safest thing to do is check for ticks every day, and then the chances of you getting Lyme disease are very, very small.”

If a child does find a tick attached, Ms. Arvidson advised, “The first thing you want to do is to find an adult and tell someone. You don’t need to panic; you don’t need to start screaming, because that’s not going to scare the tick away.”

Ms. Arvidson’s calm, matter-of-fact delivery and age-appropriate information helped minimize the fear factor. She also allowed time for questions, which provided another opportunity to clear up some misperceptions.

“Do ticks blow up when they suck your blood?” one boy asked. He was visibly disappointed when Ms. Arvidson said no.

“What if a tick bites you and falls off?” a solemn little girl asked.

Ms. Arvidson explained that the symptoms of Lyme disease include fatigue, fever, and body aches. “If you’re feeling that way, your doctor might want to give you a test for Lyme disease,” she said.

“If you get a round, red rash that looks like a target, that’s called a bulls-eye rash, that means you have Lyme disease, and you want to show your parents so they can take you to the doctor to get some medicine,” Ms. Arvidson advised.

Why the tick talks?

In a conversation with The Times after the presentation, she said her predecessor created the program, which she updated when she took it over last November. A co-worker made her costume.

The Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment sends out a letter in January each year to school nurses offering the tick education program free of charge to elementary school students on Cape Cod and the Islands.

“Lyme disease is one of the most under-reported vector diseases,” Ms. Arvidson said. “We want to raise awareness, because it’s so common here and on the Cape. If a child is sick or has health problems, Lyme disease may be the cause.”

Children diagnosed with Lyme disease are entitled to an Individual Education Plan in school, she added, because the disease may affect their ability to learn.

Tisbury assistant health inspector Maura Valley said the TBDC targeted its initial tick education efforts at elementary school children because reported cases of Lyme disease are most common among boys 5 to 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention.

Ms. Valley met with school nurses and superintendent of schools James Weiss on behalf of the committee to coordinate Ms. Arvidson’s presentations in schools Island-wide. The committee’s goal is to get Lyme disease curriculum in Island schools next year, perhaps for grades three, six, and ten, Ms. Valley said, and to find someone to set up the program and work with the schools.

The committee paid for Ms. Arvidson’s expenses and transportation to Martha’s Vineyard on Cape Air through funds from a multi-year grant from Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (MVH).

The grant stemmed from a state Department of Public Health requirement that new healthcare facilities provide a pool of money for community health initiatives.

The Island boards of health, with the support of their town selectmen, applied for and received one of four multi-year priority grants awarded by MVH last December for the tick-borne disease community health initiative.

The TBDC will receive about $50,000 a year for five years, with its work subject to periodic reviews. Tisbury board of health member Michael Loberg and Edgartown health agent Matt Poole are the committee’s co-chairmen. Its members are divided into two groups, a medical committee headed by Mr. Loberg and a tick committee headed by Mr. Poole.

The committee’s goal is to reduce the incidence of tick-borne illness on Martha’s Vineyard by six-fold, bringing it in line with that on the Cape. The committee intends to deliver a draft recommended plan to the Island’s boards of health and selectmen at the end of 2012 and initiate the plan’s implementation at the beginning of 2014.