Tick Fears – Separating Fact from Fiction

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

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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. (Photo Contributed)

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 folks 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 seems to have been more and more talk of tick-borne illnesses – Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever and others. I like to refer to it as “the disease de jour,” especially in outdoor circles.

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 checks a “tick trap” as part of her research of Alabama ticks and tick-borne illnesses. (Photo Contributed)

Emily Merritt is a research associate at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. Merritt and her peers are hard at work right now writing a scientific paper about ticks in Alabama, and the status of tick-borne illnesses.

Merritt agrees that there has been some “fear mongering” in the media regarding tick-borne illnesses. But she still believes awareness is very important.

“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.”

One type of “tick trap” basically consists of a piece sticky tape. (Photo Contributed)

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

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

(l-r) Auburn University Associate Dean of Research Graeme Lockaby observes a vial of ticks with research associate Emily Merritt and undergraduate Sam Morris. (Contributed Photo)

“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

(Editor’s Note: In the story above 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. Ms. Merritt asks the the following information be presented.)

Please refer to the graphs below. As shown by the ALDPH data table cited [HOTLINK: ], there has been not only a dramatic and significant increase in the number of spotted fever cases in recent years, but a significant increase (albeit less dramatic) in the number of Ehrlichial and Lyme disease cases as well. To suggest otherwise is incorrect and may mislead and cause readers to lower their guard regarding the risk of tick disease occurrence here.

Based on preliminary analyses, the Gulf Coast tick (which is just as aggressive as the Lone star tick and our next most commonly captured tick) on average carries about 18% (up to about 36% in some areas) of Rickettsia parkeri, a newly identified spotted fever-causing bacteria. Among many other factors detailed, this bacteria could be a reason for the increased number of spotted fever reports in the SE. Logically, those infection rates mean that every 1-3 out of 100 ticks someone encounters in the wild could cause Ehrlichiosis, and 2-4 out of every 10 ticks could cause spotted fever Rickettsiosis — a pretty easy number to encounter if you’re frequently outdoors. And other commonly encountered tick species, not just the Lone star tick he cited, may carry other illness-causing pathogens as well, but at lower rates than these.

I encounter almost as many or equally as many ticks in the South as I did in the North (I’m from Long Island, New York and worked on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts — both are hotbeds for ticks and tick-borne illnesses). Unfortunately this information was excluded.

Emily Merritt
Research Associate
School of Forestry & Wildlife Sciences, RM 3233

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