Everyone knows that ticks can spread Lyme disease, but did you know that four new kinds of tick-borne illnesses have been recently identified? Scary. Apparently, tick-borne diseases are significantly more common than the general public (or even science) realizes. Even more reason to slather on the bug spray when you’re enjoying the outdoors this fall.
According to Maryn McKenna over at Wired‘s Superbug blog, the past few years have yielded a bounty of new medical information regarding those pesky little ticks. She attended the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, an infectious-disease and drugs meeting that’s sponsored every year by the American Society for Microbiology. And the buzz at the conference was about tick diseases.
In 2009, a new sickness that’s similar to ehrlichiosis (a tickborne bacterial infection) was identified after two men became seriously ill. Diseases hadn’t previously been identified in the particular species of tick that infected the men; forty-two people have since suffered from the disease.
Another new illness, that is similar to Lyme disease but is caused by a newly identified relative of the Lyme organism called Borrelia miyamotoi, is responsible for illnesses in humans in Russia. It causes recurring and occasionally fatal fevers, and has been seen in ticks in the Northeast and in the Midwest.
Even worse: two cases of encephalitis have been reported as connected to deer ticks. Deer tick virus was thought to affect only deer, but it looks it’s coming for people now, too. And just last week, a new tick-borne illness was discovered in Missouri.
But even if you’re a shut-in who never ventures beyond the limits of your backyard, you could still be at risk. Dr. Barbara Herwaldt of the CDC reported that, to date, 159 people have been infected with tick-borne illnesses through blood transfusions, something she said is only “the tip of the iceberg.” She added:
“The bottom line is: There are too many cases; they are still occurring; this is not going away,” she said. “Infected people, and contaminated blood components, can travel much further than ticks can. Donor-screening tests are needed.”
There’s not much you can do to protect yourself from getting infected by blood transfusions, other than advocating for your clinic or local hospital to institute harsher screening, but there are a few things you can do in the great outdoors. Elizabeth gave us some great tips to protect yourself from ticks, including doing avoiding grassy areas and wearing long sleeves when possible. Being informed is a way to stay safe, as well. Research the areas you plan to be hiking or camping in so you can know if you’re in an area of high tick risk or not. The Tick Encounter Resource Center is a great source of information if you’re in New England, and the American Lyme Disease Association also offers an interactive map of infected areas.