Spring has at long last come to Martha’s Vineyard, and with it comes the return of striped bass, the proliferation of out-of-state license plates, and, unfortunately, the re-emergence of ticks.
Every Islander who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past 20 years knows we live a hot zone for tick-borne illnesses and, this week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released data that shows even more cause for concern, and the importance of prevention.
The Morbidity and Mortality report, released by the CDC on Tuesday, May 1, concluded that reported cases of tick-borne illness doubled between 2004 and 2016.
“Tick-borne diseases are rising steadily in the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, and California,” the report states. “Overall, the number of Americans infected by mosquito, tick, and flea bites has more than tripled since 2014.”
Of the roughly 650,000 cases of vector-borne disease that were reported between 2004 and 2016, 492,000 cases were tick-borne illnesses, more than 75 percent. The actual total is likely far greater. The CDC estimates that about 300,000 Americans get Lyme disease each year, but only about 35,000 diagnoses are reported. Lyme disease accounted for 82 percent of all tick-borne disease reports. Ticks also spread anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, spotted fever, tularemia, and Powassan virus. All but babesiosis have been on the rise in recent years.
The recent colonization of the Island by Lone Star ticks adds Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI) and spotted fever to the list of potential maladies.
The majority of Lyme disease infections on the Island will take place over the next two months, because nymphal deer ticks, the primary vector for Lyme disease, are in search of their first blood meal. They’re ravenous, minuscule, and newly infected with Borrelia burgdorferi — the bacterium that causes Lyme disease — from the white-footed mice they cozied up with over the winter.
News from the battlefront
The Times spoke to a number of foot soldiers in the war against ticks.
Early reports point to a rise in numbers.
“So far we’ve definitely seen an increase over last year at this time,” Mario Spindola, owner of the ohDeer franchise on Martha’s Vineyard, told The Times. “We only had that one cold snap around New Year’s, so they had a pretty easy winter. February was pretty mild. That’s when I started getting calls.”
“Every year is a bad year for ticks,” tick expert Sam Telford, professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, told The Times. “My message is ticks are everywhere, protect yourself, protect your kids. Use DEET repellent. We tell our kids when they go bicycling to wear a helmet, likewise, we should tell our kids if you’re going outside for more than a couple of minutes, always use the repellent. Put it by the door.”
Telford said that while May and June are still the most prevalent months for tick-borne disease infection on the Vineyard, it’s no longer the case that we’re out of the woods in late summer, when larval ticks emerge.
“From now on, we no longer say larval ticks are harmless,” he said. “You can get infected in September and October; then the deer ticks come out. You can pick up a tick in the snow. It can happen year-round.”
Telford expects the Lone Star tick population on the Island to continue to rise.
“It’s an invasive species, like bittersweet,” he said. “We found the first one on Cuttyhunk six years ago, and now they’re the dominant species. I used to find one every three years on the Cape; I found a dozen yesterday.”
Unlike deer ticks and dog ticks, Lone Star ticks do not wait passively for their prey.
“They’re way more aggressive. They have eyes, and unlike deer ticks that are blind, they can see you and come after you,” he said.
A malady unique to Lone Star ticks is Alpha-Gal meat allergy, which makes the victim allergic to red meat.
“People get sensitized to a sugar by the bite of a Lone Star tick; the same sugar occurs in red meat. Then they have a reaction after eating red meat,” Telford said. “It can be as severe as any food allergy, with the risk of anaphylaxis. But Alpha-Gal can present six to eight hours later. Nantucket had first its first case three years ago.”
As always, Telford beat the drum of prevention — wear protective clothing treated with permethrin, use DEET repellent, do preventive landscaping like clearing leaf litter, make daily tick checks, and and know the early symptoms of tick-borne diseases.
The Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health (MVBOH) website has a trove of information about ticks, disease prevention, symptoms, and treatment.
Homeowners who would like Dick Johnson, field biologist for MVBOH, to do a tick survey of their property can email him at email@example.com or call him at 508-693-1893.
According to the CDC, “chemical intervention should focus on early control of nymphal [deer] ticks, the stage most likely to transmit Lyme disease, by spraying once in May or early June.”