Health Beat: Tick-borne diseases: We’re not out of the woods yet

Prevalence of ticks puts Islanders at risk for Lyme and other illnesses.

Krista Farthing, a lab tech at M.V. Hospital, puts a blood sample through the hospital’s Biomerieux VIDAS 30 analyzer, which the hospital has had for about eight years. It has 150 percent more capacity than the hospital's previous piece of equipment. —Gregory Mathis

Just because the heat of the summer is behind us, don’t let your guard down when it comes to protecting yourself against tick bites.

We’re not out of the woods just yet.

Traditionally, we think of peak tick season being a summer thing. Although tick activity is weather-dependent, there are generally two peaks during the year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health; the first begins in March to April, and lasts through August, and the second occurs in October to November.

But tick season never really ends. According to the DPH, tick activity and tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Borrelia miyamotoi, and Powassan virus, occur year-round in Massachusetts, and especially on Martha’s Vineyard, where ticks are very prevalent.

Statewide, Dukes County/Nantucket had by far the highest rate per 10,000 people of tick-borne disease visits to the Emergency Department, at 135.34. The next highest county was Plymouth County, with a rate of 14.41 per 10,000 residents.

In June, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital teamed up with Island Health Care, Vineyard Medical Care, Island Tick-Borne Disease Initiative, and the Fledgling Fund to hold a conference titled “Tick-Borne Disease of Martha’s Vineyard.” The free event provided community members an opportunity to hear about current trends with tick-borne diseases on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as practical information about acute diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

One of those trends, as reported by The Martha’s Vineyard Times in March 2023, is the increase in the number of cases of babesiosis, a rare tick-borne infection spread by bites from deer ticks.

Testing for tick-borne diseases at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital this summer backed up that assumption.

The hospital conducted 1,084 babesia tests from June 1 to August 23, with 27 positive results.

For that same period in 2022, there were 11 positive babesia tests.

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has been able to conduct testing onsite since 2011, and this summer was particularly busy in the lab, which saw testing increase by 32 percent this July and August, versus July and August 2022. That was expressly due to the increased volume of tick-borne disease testing being performed at the hospital.

Test volumes for tick-borne disease tests for the period June 1 to August 23, 2023, were:

  • Lyme antibody: 1,772
  • Ehrlichia PCR: 1,120
  • Babesia PCR: 1,084
  • Tularemia antibody: 648

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) antibody: 427
In addition to testing for these dangerous, life-threatening tick-borne diseases, Dr. Karen Casper, Emergency Medical Department director at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, said alpha-gal tick disease is a growing concern on the Vineyard.

“We are diagnosing a lot more (alpha-gal tick disease),” said Dr. Casper, as well as doing more testing for that disease than ever before.

A person with alpha-gal tick disease is classically allergic to meat, but can sometimes also have reactions to dairy and hidden meat, making it particularly hard to manage. The allergic reaction can be anaphylactic shock, requiring people to carry an EpiPen.

Tick-borne diseases are most frequently diagnosed in children and older adults, but it’s important for everyone to protect themselves.

“For outdoor activity, make sure you wear protective clothing to cover as much skin as possible,” said Dr. Casper. “Application of EPA-registered insect repellents is helpful, and recommended. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing and boots is a good idea.”

Ticks must be attached for multiple hours before the bacteria can be transmitted. Symptoms may begin anywhere from three to 30 days post–tick bite, and may include a red, expanding rash with a bull’s-eye, fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

Some people may get these general symptoms in addition to a rash, but in others, these general symptoms may be the only evidence of infection.

Dr. Casper emphasized the importance of daily tick checks. Make sure you check these high-risk areas:

  • Under the arms
  • In and around the ears
  • Inside belly button
  • Back of the knees
  • In and around the hair
  • Between the legs
  • Around the waist

If you have a tick bite, remove the tick as soon as possible. Discuss with your primary-care provider if treatment is recommended. For more information:

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