Delaware officials offer warnings of tick-borne illness

A pair of deer fight off ticks on Horsepond Road in Dover last month. (Delaware State News/Yvonne Kirksey)

DOVER — Although ticks are active year-round, their life cycle and residents’ drive to enjoy the outdoors with ideal weather make spring and summer the peak season for the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses in the state.

“With the tick’s life cycle, the nymphs usually hatch out in the early spring, but they’re very hard to detect because they can be as tiny as a poppy seed,” said Paula Eggers, an epidemiologist with the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS).

“We usually start seeing increased activity, in terms of disease being reported, starting in April but the highest risk runs clear through to October. Even then we get reports year round. But spring and summer are the peak, especially because we all want to enjoy the outdoors.”

Ms. Eggers notes that because Delaware regularly finds itself on the top 10 list of states with the highest per capita incidence rate of Lyme disease, it’s important to spread information about avoidance techniques. To that end, DHSS is continuing to push a campaign called BLAST (standing for bathe, look, apply, spray and treat) initiated in May in hopes of driving the state’s elevated Lyme disease rate down.

According to DHSS data, the state received reports of 608 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in 2017, bringing the incidence rate to 64 per 100,000 people. Delaware’s rate remains high in comparison to other states, but swings broadly from year to year in actual cases reported — with a high of 984 reported cases in 2009 and 417 in 2014 across 13 years of collected data. The highest number of reported cases every year come from New Castle County (mainly because of population), while Kent and Sussex counties usually fluctuate between 70 and 190 cases reported every year.

“Our rate overall is pretty high,” said Ms. Eggers. “It’s attributable to a few factors, but a lot of it has to do with land-use patterns and populations of mice and white-tailed deer.”

What is it?

According to DHSS, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States with approximately 20,000 new cases reported each year. However, the Centers for Disease Control believes that the actual number of Lyme disease cases nationwide is 10 times higher than what is reported to doctors or state and county health departments.

Lyme disease’s alleged origin comes from a small coastal town in Connecticut called Lyme. In 1975, a woman brought an unusual cluster of pediatric arthritis cases to the attention of Yale researchers. In 1977, the Yale researchers identified and named the clusters “Lyme arthritis.” In 1979, the name was changed to “Lyme disease,” when additional symptoms such as neurological problems and severe fatigue were linked to the disease. In 1982 the cause of the disease was discovered by Dr. Willy Burgdorfer. Dr. Burgdorfer published a paper on the infectious agent of Lyme disease and earned the right to have his name placed on the Lyme disease spirochete now known as Borrelia burgdorferi.

DHSS notes that Borrelia burgdorferi is transmitted to animals and humans through the bite of an infected black-legged or deer tick. There is no evidence that Lyme disease is transmitted from person-to-person. For example, a person cannot get infected from touching a person who has Lyme disease.

Lyme disease can infect several parts of the body which can cause different symptoms at different times. Symptoms of Lyme disease can be nonspecific and may resemble other diseases. The most common early symptoms include an expanding bull’s-eye-shaped rash, fever or chills, fatigue, muscle and joint aces and headache.

According to DHSS data, the state received reports of 608 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in 2017, bringing the incidence rate to 64 per 100,000 people. (Submitted photo)

What to do

“Prompt removal of a tick, if one is found, is one of the most important things you can do,” said Ms. Eggers. “It takes at least 24 to 36 hours of attachment for the tick to be able to transmit the disease — so the earlier you get it off you, the better.”

As for method, Ms. Eggers eschews the long list of home remedies in favor of the direct approach.

“If you find one that has embedded, some people want to use home remedies like matches or Vaseline to get rid of the tick, but these methods don’t usually work and can even make the situation worse,” she said. “Use a pair of tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the base as you can and swiftly pull straight up. If you don’t have that, protect your hand with something and pinch the tick with your fingers to pull it out.”

While some who find and remove a tick prefer a “wait and see” approach, Ms. Eggers said contacting a health care provider is a good way to err on the side of caution.

“It’s not a bad idea,” she said. “Doctors are able to give a single dose of Doxycycline — the antibiotic most widely used to treat Lyme disease — as a precaution to prevent the disease in those instances.”

BLAST Lyme disease

As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Dealing with tick-borne illnesses is no different. DHSS’s BLAST Lyme disease campaign launched earlier this year gives residents a few handy tips when it comes to prevention:

• Bathe or shower within two hours of coming indoors

• Look for ticks on your body and remove them

• Apply repellent to your body and clothes

• Spray your yard

• Treat your pet

The crucial tick check is one of the most important steps, says Ms. Eggers.

“People have to check themselves, but they should also check children and even pets — your dog or cat can bring a tick into the house just as easily as you can,” she said.

Incidentally, Lyme disease isn’t the only disease spread by ticks and the deer tick isn’t the only pest-type of tick in the state. Ticks (including species other than the blacklegged or deer tick) can also transmit diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis. The state is also host to the lone star tick and the American dog tick.

“While patients suffering from other tick-borne illnesses can often be more sick, the incidence rate of those is much lower,” said Ms. Eggers.

Despite the other ticks and associated diseases to be on the lookout for, DHSS stresses that prevention against one of them will increase the chance of contracting any of them.

For more information on Lyme disease in the state, visit de.gov/lyme.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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