Ticks trump snakes for Quabbin concerns

Health officials: Lyme disease more real threat than rattlesnake attacks

  • A deer tick sits atop a leaf. Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/20/2016 5:27:24 PM

ORANGE — Rattlesnakes, mosquitoes and ticks. Of these, rattlesnakes are the least of local public health officials’ worries.

The North Quabbin Community Coalition devoted its monthly forum Friday to the state’s headline-grabbing plans to stock an island in the Quabbin Reservoir with endangered timber rattlesnakes, and to the growing threats posed by mosquitoes and ticks.

Local naturalist David Small, former assistant Quabbin director for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, gave a brief presentation on the now well-publicized plan to introduce timber rattlesnakes to Mount Zion, a large island in the reservoir, as a buffer against local extinction as the five identified populations in the state dwindle. Fears raised by the project have followed two main branches. First is that the snakes will spread from the island, either by swimming or over the bridge formed by two baffle dams, and bite people. The second is that the snakes will spread and cause the state to further restrict hunting, fishing and recreational access to the land and water.

Small raised the same arguments used by other naturalists and scientists in support of the project: that the snakes don’t travel far, don’t breed fast, eat very little and haven’t killed anyone in years despite a heavy human presence in the Blue Hills and other rattlesnake population centers.

“Some of these populations are down to 20 animals and that’s not enough to sustain them, so they’re going to wink out. Before they all wink out we need to try to intervene,” Small said.

Nobody talked about saving ticks, which became the main topic of conversation when Athol Health Agent and entomologist Deborah Vondal and Athol Hospital Public Health Nurse Pamela Jobst took over.

The possibility of venomous rattlesnakes biting in self-defense doesn’t really register for these two in comparison to the reality of disease-carrying insects waiting in the wood line, in the garden and under last year’s leaves.

Heather Bialecki-Canning, Community Coalition executive director, said that during her recent polling of locals on the rattlesnake issue, the predominant fears that emerged were of other people — fellow hikers and transients camping in the woods — and the diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks.

Vondal prefaced her talk with a caution not to let reasonable caution turn into something life-limiting. She still gardens, she said, despite a bee sting that nearly killed her. Now she keeps epinephrine handy.

Mosquitoes and ticks are worth worrying about though, and worth taking precautions against. Mosquitoes carrying Eastern Equine Encephalitis and West Nile can breed here; fortunately those that carry the Zika virus cannot. The risks of mosquito-borne diseases are still relatively low, though.

“What we should really be worrying about is the ticks: really, that one bite can change your life,” Vondal said.

Lyme disease is now endemic throughout the region, carried by about one in four deer ticks, according to state statistics, and the number of known co-infections riding along with Lyme is growing.

Right now is the worst time of year for it, Vondal said, with the tiny tick nymphs often going undetected on a victim’s skin. They’re about the size of a poppy seed, she said, compared to the sesame-seed dimensions of an adult.

Jobst said she used to just advise people to check themselves carefully after going out in nature; now she advises active prevention. Now she advises treating shoes and outdoor clothing with the insecticide and insect repellant permethrin, available in Orange at Wal-Mart and Trail Head Outfitter and General Store. She even advises gaiters of the type used for cross-country skiing for hikers unwilling to tuck their pants into their socks to keep ticks out. Clothing should also be treated.

If all else fails, prompt and careful removal of the tick is key. It takes time, somewhere around 24 hours after a tick has begun feeding, for it to transmit Lyme disease. Tweezers are best, grasping the tick around the buried head and not the blood-inflated body. It is important not to squish the insect’s meal back into your bloodstream. There are a whole host of home tick removal tricks to avoid, from burning them with cigarettes to camp fuel.

However, experts say anything that irritates the tick may cause it to disgorge the contents of its stomach into its victim, exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Lyme infection may be followed by a “bull’s-eye” rash with concentric rings in three to 30 days, and flu-like aches and fever. But beware — the rash isn’t universal, and Lyme disease tests are also prone to false negatives.

Worse, treatment can be hard to come by beyond the initial course of antibiotics.

“(Lyme disease) treatment is something that is as political as rattlesnakes, truthfully,” Jobst said. About 10 to 20 percent of people come down with an imperfectly understood post-Lyme syndrome. Long-term antibiotics have not been proven to help, she said, and some doctors risk their licenses to prescribe them. There’s also a vaccine for animals, but no vaccine approved for humans.

Small is one of the lucky few humans to have had an experimental Lyme vaccine years ago, and he said he’s never had a problem with Lyme disease despite the time he spends outdoors. Anecdotally, those who have received it don’t seem to be at risk for the disease, said Quabbin Mediation Director Sharon Tracy.

Some threats can be avoided — rattlesnakes maybe more easily than others, given the rattle — some have to be adapted to.

To Vondal, it’s important not to let fear get in the way of life.

“There are so many things we can worry about, and if you stop long enough you probably wouldn’t go out of your house,” she said.

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