Tick fears: Separating fact from fiction

Lone Star ticks are the most common, especially in forested woodlands found in our area. The females are easily recognized by a single white dot in the center of a brown body, with the males having spots or streaks of white around the outer edge of the body.

(Editor's Note: In this article regarding ticks and the potential exposure to tick-borne diseases, Richard Simms interviewed Emily Merritt, Research Associate with the Auburn School of Forestry & Wildlife Sciences. Ms. Merritt expressed concerns that pertinent facts were excluded from the story in question. Please read the statement here for more information.)

Turkey hunting season is in full swing. It's also time to do yard work and gardening, not to mention hiking area trails and other outdoor activities.

In other words, it is that time of year when people are far more likely to encounter ticks - those dreaded little bloodsuckers that can find their way to the most vulnerable and sensitive parts of your body.

In recent years there has been more and more talk of tick-borne illnesses - Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever and others.

But should you really be afraid of ticks and diseases they might carry or are the concerns mostly media hype?

Here is a fact - according to the Center for Disease Control, 96 percent of ALL the reported cases of Lyme disease have occurred in 14 states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Lyme disease cases are quite rare in Southeast, although we obviously have more than our fair share of ticks.

Emily Merritt is a research associate at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

Merritt and her colleagues are now writing a scientific paper about ticks in Alabama, and the status of tick-borne illnesses.

Merritt says she agrees that there has been some "fear mongering" in the media regarding tick-borne illnesses, but still believes awareness is very important.

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"As far as the fear factor, I know where you're coming from," said Merritt. "But I honestly think the lack of fear is out-of-proportion with where it needs to be. A lot more people need to be made aware of the potential for tick-borne illnesses, particularly because it has been downplayed in the Southeast by the CDC. I think the problem is greater than we're aware of."

In Alabama specifically there has been a dramatic increase in the number of "spotted fever" cases in recent years.

However there has been no significant increase in the number of other tick-borne illnesses.

Merritt says the increased number of "spotted fever" cases may not actually represent an increase in the disease.

"I really think is does have to do with the reporting practices of spotted fever," she said. "They changed the reporting criteria sometime in the 2000's. They started reporting related spotted fever cases, not just 'Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Of course in Alabama and other Southeast states there has been a dramatic increase in the number of deer. That has led to an increase in the number of ticks and increased cases [of tick-borne illnesses] but there definitely is more awareness of such diseases and the ability to diagnose them as well."

While it is costly and time-consuming, Merritt says scientists do have the means of determining if individual ticks carry a disease-causing bacteria.

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Merritt said, "This is very preliminary, we have much more analysis to do, but of the Lone Star ticks (most common species) we collected from the field we're finding that on average 0.5 percent carry an Ehrlichia [bacteria] species which can cause some form of illness. But it some areas it can be up to 2.5 percent."

That means that at least 97.5 percent (probably even more) of the most common species of tick does not carry a disease-causing agent.

As part of her research Merritt also conducted a survey of Alabama hunters & fishermen.

Merritt says according to that survey, 6.8 percent of those who responded (58 people) reported having had a tick-borne illness sometime in their life.

“One of the reasons I’m trying to get the word out, and when we publish our research (later this year), is we really need doctors to recognize that these tick-borne illnesses are here in Alabama,” said Merritt. "I just always try and stress the preventive measures and if you suspect you might have a tick-borne illness, go to the doctor. We found that the survey respondents who saw a doctor within one month, their illness was not nearly as severe."

Learn more about Ticks & Tick-borne Illnesses in Alabama click here.

(Portions of this article provided courtesy David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

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