A Tick-ing Time Bomb?
We shouldn’t underestimate the potential of ticks to trigger the next health emergency
Summer beckons in the Northern Hemisphere. For many, that means holidays, cookouts and time outdoors.
It also means tick season.
Ticks are prolific carriers of disease. They’re most active during the warmer months of the year. Ticks jump from host to host, feeding off blood, and they can spread a bevy of pathogens.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States, often causing a rash and symptoms such as fever, chills, malaise, fatigue and headache. An estimated 476,000 Americans are newly diagnosed and treated every year. Some people who are infected experience debilitating brain, heart and joint conditions.
Although Lyme is familiar to most of us, it’s far from the only tick-borne disease out there. There are many species of ticks, from the black-legged tick to the Gulf Coast tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick. Each of these species is known to carry certain bacteria and viruses.
Lately there’s been an uptick (sorry) in attention to these tiny critters. The Wall Street Journal published an eye-opening piece on how ticks and mosquitoes have expanded their range across the U.S., assisted by warmer temperatures and changes in land use. Ticks are even posing a risk as far north as Alaska. Earlier this year, we saw a deadly case of Powassan virus in Maine and a doubling of babesiosis cases in the Northeast.
So how concerned should we be?
I’ve said for years that one nightmare scenario is a tick-borne virus as deadly as Ebola and as common as Lyme. What would happen if ticks in the U.S. began spreading Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF) or Kyasanur Forest disease (KFD), two tick-borne hemorrhagic fevers? New pathogens in established tick species or new tick species with new pathogens could be deadly and pose a potent pandemic threat.
Nature doesn’t wait — new health threats could emerge at any time. We must invest in strengthening public health systems. That includes improving the ability of countries to quickly find and stop disease outbreaks, whether they’re spread by ticks or not. New and better products for repelling ticks and protecting our pets from them are also in the works.
For now, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves from ticks and the diseases they spread. Check out the CDC’s page on ticks for detailed information.
- Know where to expect ticks. Grassy, brushy or wooded areas are where ticks live, including yards and neighborhoods. When hiking, stay on the trail. Ticks can be found throughout the U.S. and the world, not just in hotspots such as the Northeast.
- Wear protection, including clothing that covers your skin and hair, when you’re outside. Use an EPA-registered insect repellent.
- Check your pets for ticks daily, especially when they’ve been spending time outside. Pets can bring ticks into the home and they are also susceptible to tick-borne disease.
- When you come indoors, do a tick check on skin and clothing. Take a shower so you can wash off any unattached ticks. When you’re checking for ticks, be sure to examine overlooked areas such as behind the ears, under the arms, and behind the knees.
- If you do see an attached tick, remove it with tweezers as soon as possible. Dispose of it safely by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag, or flushing it down the toilet.
- If you develop a rash or fever after removing a tick, see your doctor.