Telford talks ticks

Are there more ticks and diseases now than before?


Tick expert Dr. Sam Telford answers questions about the Island’s most insidious insect and how to prevent the bacteria it can inject.

Dear Sam.

Back in the day, tick bites were more of an annoyance. But now a bite is much more likely to make you sick. The newspapers are increasingly writing about an ever-increasing list of disease-causing microbes transmitted by ticks. Is this due to more and more ticks or just that we are better able to recognize diseases?

— Ian, Oak Bluffs

Ian, when I first started as a graduate student in 1984, my fellow students couldn’t understand why I would want to work on diseases that “only infected a few rich people.”  Those of us eccentric enough to study ticks knew that our scientific forebears found many different microbes in ticks that had not yet been proven to be a health issue for people. Lyme disease was found in museum specimens of mice from Cape Cod collected in 1896, and we know from the scientific literature that babesiosis and ehrlichiosis were in Vineyard mice in 1938…but these infections were not recognized as human problems until 30 or 40 years later, coinciding with the rise in deer tick populations in the 1980s. More people are now messing around in the bushes wearing shorts and sandals, and so more people are exposed to ticks than ever. But our recognition of all the “new” tick-borne diseases is also a tribute to our physicians and research laboratories who have been suspicious of what used to be called “summer fever” and worked a bit harder to identify the causes. It helped that the few rich people who had been the victims in the early years squawked to their legislators and federal money became available to ensure that guys like me would always have a job chasing the next tick-borne disease. Now, of course, deer tick-transmitted infections do not discriminate — rich, middle class, and poor are equally afflicted.

Don’t become the poster child for the next new tick-borne disease, or the umpteenth victim of the known ones. NO tick bite is a good tick bite. Protect yourself. Use repellents and clothing treatments. Take a shower as soon as you can after being in places where there may be ticks; ticks can be indecisive about where to attach. Check yourself for ticks every night, preferably in the shower, feeling for new bumps after soaping up. If you can, have a partner help you check! And always, always, have an unexplained fever checked out by a health care professional. All tick-borne infections present with a fever in their early stages, although Lyme disease may present just as an expanding rash. (If a tick is still attached, or the red patch on your skin does not grow in size, it is not Lyme disease. However, a rash does not have to be a bull’s-eye to be Lyme disease. The important factor is that it gets larger over time.)

Visit the MV Tick Borne Disease Initiative website (, sponsored by the Island-wide boards of health, for tips on prevention.

Sam Telford is Professor of Infectious Disease and Global Health at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. He works on the epidemiology of tick-borne infections and for the last 20 years has been sneaking around the tick-infested Vineyard doing his part to take away as many ticks as he can. He is a member of the MV Tick Borne Disease Initiative, which is sponsored by the Island-wide boards of health.