Health officials say human behavior must change to combat ticks

  • Phoebe Walker, director of Community Services at Franklin County Council of Governments, says tick-borne illnesses are already increasing so humans need to change their behavior. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Tick-borne illnesses are on the rise, and public health officials say residents need to change their behavior to protect themselves. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/19/2019 11:15:40 PM
Modified: 4/19/2019 11:15:26 PM

CHARLEMONT — Robert Lingle moved to Charlemont a decade ago to live near his ailing grandmother and was soon infected by a tick. The illness that followed changed the course of Lingle’s life irrevocably.

During annual trips to the region as a child, Lingle said he was hardly aware of ticks. But many years later, when he relocated to Charlemont, Lingle was bitten by a tick — then two, then three, then four. He soon developed bulls-eye rashes and reported feeling ill, his symptoms including fatigue, buzzing ears, neck pain, achy joints and nausea.

After Lyme tests came back negative, doctors were confounded. They suggested symptoms may be mentally induced, Lingle said, and even misdiagnosed him with the motor neuron disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Finally, in 2013 — four years after Lingle first reported symptoms — a doctor diagnosed him with Lyme disease, an illness that is notoriously difficult to detect. Lingle was prescribed antibiotics, and while his health improved, he said some symptoms remain today — the most significant being joint pain. These days, Lingle said he thinks about ticks constantly — spraying himself with tick repellant, checking his body regularly and wearing long rubber boots even in summer.

As the climate heats up, cases of tick-borne diseases like Lyme are increasing. Ticks are able to survive warmer winters and also nest in certain invasive species that are emerging in the region due to rising temperatures. A Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) climate report released this year cites tick-borne diseases as among the most significant global warming-exacerbated threats to public health in the region.

According to FRCOG Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker, this is the bottom line: tick-borne illnesses are already increasing so humans need to change their behavior. But this is no easy task for long-time locals, Walker said, as tick-borne diseases haven’t been a common problem until fairly recently.

“We’re not going to be able to stop this,” Walker said. “The overall message about ticks is that there are more of them in more places and they carry more diseases, and so we sort of need people to change their behavior. This is going to be a generational thing where people have to learn to change their outdoor behavior, which is a really hard thing to do when you’ve grown up here your whole life.”

The most common types of disease-carrying ticks found in this region are black-legged (deer) ticks. Of the different tick-borne infections, black-legged ticks mostly carry Lyme disease, whose symptoms include fevers, headaches, fatigue, and rashes according the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

While Lyme is most common, another disease carried by black-legged ticks has emerged in recent years, Anaplasmosis, whose symptoms include fever, headaches, chills and muscle aches, according to the CDC.

While black-legged ticks most commonly infect humans in this area, a different kind of tick found in Southern states, the Lone Star, has recently appeared in Massachusetts, though its population is negligible, FRCOG Public Health Emergency Preparedness Planner Greg Lewis said. Lone Star ticks can can cause an allergy to red meat, as well as tularemia, ehrlichiosis and Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI).

Quantifying cases of tick bites and illnesses is difficult as many times they go unreported or undiagnosed. According to data from 11 towns part of the FRCOG’s Cooperative Public Health Service, suspected Lyme cases were the second-highest communicable disease after the flu. There were 41 suspected Lyme cases from between April 2016 and March 2017; 66 suspected cases the following year; and 63 cases the year after that (though Colrain joined the cooperative in this period). However, across the period only two cases were confirmed to be Lyme disease – though this is likely because the illness is difficult to determine.

Prevention

To protect residents from tick-borne illnesses, local public health officials have been working to inform residents about prevention strategies for the past few years. In 2013, the FRCOG installed signs in open areas with information about how to prevent bites. The following year the council created billboards and bus banners with similar warnings, though this initiative ended in 2016 when funding dried up. The council recently began distributing brochures about tick-borne illnesses in town halls and other public areas in the Cooperative Public Health Services member towns.

The council’s 2019 climate report included recommendations to improve public awareness of ticks and the risks they carry. Recommendations include increasing signs and distributing written and audio materials in community areas like town halls and via public health workers.

The report also suggested improving access to repellents for humans like permethrin, a synthetic chemical, to spray their clothing and prevent tick bites, lasting three to four washes, as well as natural repellants like eucalyptus oil, rose geranium oil and other essential oils.

The FRCOG suggests providing information about tick repellents for pets, including Advantix and NexGuard, at agricultural fairs.

Lewis suggested humans think of tick repellant sprays like permethrin (applied to clothes) or DEET (applied to skin) as “quote unquote bug spray.” Lewis also suggested residents make some small changes such as tucking pants into shoes and checking their bodies after being outdoors.

“All those things can really reduce a bite,” Lewis said.

Walker added that residents can adjust their homes to protect themselves from ticks – for example, by keeping wood piles away from their homes as mice gravitate there (as do the ticks who live on them).

Town health boards are also making efforts to inform residents about ticks. For example, Buckland Board of Health member Marti Taft-Ferguson is hosting an informational “tick table” this year at the annual Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale on May 18, 9 a.m. to noon at the Village Green on the corner of Water and Main streets.

“Getting useful info out to as many people as possible is important,” Taft-Ferguson wrote in an email. “I think people want to be able to get outside, be active, and take advantage of our wonderful natural environment, and they should be able to do so safely, with information and strategies, not with fear and worry.”

If bitten by a tick, residents can send the insect to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Laboratory of Medical Zoology to be testing. Ticks can mailed 101 Fernald Hall, 270 Stockbridge Road, Amherst, MA 01003 or delivered in person if an order is placed online beforehand. Assessments costs a minimum of $50 – though most member towns in the Cooperative Public Health Services can use the service at a subsidized rate of $15. Visit https://www.tickreport.com/ for more information.

Visit https://www.mass.gov/tick-borne-diseases to learn more about ticks and tick-borne illnesses.

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280. Follow her on Twitter at @gracebird23.




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