Letter to the Editor: Tick Alert!

March 30, 2020

Submitted by Ann Kiessling, PhD

It’s important that the Covid-19 epidemic not eclipse the need for Bedford residents to remember that April is spring tick season!

SARS2, the causative virus of Covid-19, does not survive outdoors, especially in the sun, and being outside is highly therapeutic for families whose schedules have been turned upside down, so it is more important than ever to be outside and take advantage of Bedford’s many, many lovely outdoor areas.

The ticks emerging right now are the small nymphs, the form this fascinating insect assumes after morphing from larvae.  They are only about 2 mm in diameter, less than an eighth of an inch, extremely easy to overlook.

Field mice are the most common host for ticks in the first year of their life cycle.  Ticks do not lay eggs in that first year, they feed and grow large, but they are fully capable of transmitting tick-borne diseases:  Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis.

Tick expert, Dr. Sam Telford, Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, reminded the Bedford Board of Health in a meeting last fall, that ticks die in dry surroundings.  Therefore, putting clothes in a dryer after a woodland walk, or freeing all walking/playing outdoor areas of wet leaves and mulch, will discourage tick populations.  He further recommended that spreading permethrin granules on walking paths in the spring and fall, and perimeters of play areas, are good tick prevention strategies.

Bedford is rich with lovely, public walking areas, and Bedford residents have more time now than usual to enjoy them – six feet apart!  Spreading a light coating of permethrin granules, proven safe for humans, animals, and pond life, on walking trails would be extremely helpful, and comply with Dr. Telford’s recommendations, but in the absence of that, everyone needs to be tick vigilant.

Permethrin-embedded clothing is available, or permethrin-spraying outer garments, tucking pants into white socks, leaving walking shoes in an outside area, throwing clothes into a dryer, are all highly recommended anti-tick strategies.

The tick itself does not carry a high concentration of Lyme, anaplasmosis, or babesiosis germs, those germs begin to multiply in the tick salivary glands once the tick mouthparts gain access to a warm-blood capillary.  It is for this reason that the tick is not really infectious until it has been attached to a blood supply for several hours.

Therefore, a tick walking on you, or on the dog, is not dangerous – put it down the drain, or throw it in the fireplace – it will climb back out of the garbage.

A tick lightly attached to your skin – easy to disengage – is probably also not dangerous – there is a laboratory at U Mass Amherst that is willing to test ticks, although I do not know if they are currently in operation.

There are remarkably few studies on the curative treatment of tick-borne diseases, especially when the tick transmits more than one at a time, which is possible.   Lyme disease and anaplasmosis are easily treated by antibiotics, such as doxycycline if treated early, but babesiosis is more like a malaria parasite and requires specialized treatment.  Also, the diagnostic test for babesiosis right now is a blood smear examined by a microscope, so it is frequently overlooked, and also frequently not symptomatic.

So, don’t be afraid to walk Bedford’s many lovely trails, but be in control of your tick exposure and understand the possible treatment.   In this day of telemedicine, it may be more important than ever for every Bedford resident to have a couple of doses of doxycycline in the medicine cabinet to be taken, with food, at the time the fully attached tick is removed.   That would give everyone time to decide if more treatment is actually necessary.

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