Keep off the grass. April 5, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: deer ticks, Lyme disease, prevent Lyme disease, tick invasion, ticks
Planning an Easter-egg hunt this weekend? You might want to do it indoors. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been horrified to read articles in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, and The Wall Street Journal within the past week about the predicted massive tick outbreak heading our way this year.
Ticks, those vampires of the insect (actualy mite) world, are gross enough as it is, putting the “creepy” into creepy crawlers. Unlike mosquitoes, which you can see, hear, and feel, you seldom know a tick is sucking your blood until you just happen to see it. And where you’re likely to see it is every bit as gross as the fact that you now have to get this bloodsucker off yourself by extracting it with tweezers. Ticks favor warm, humid areas, including armpits, the groin, bra and underwear bands, the scalp, etc. Eeeewwww!
But (trust us) they’ve been known to attach themselves pretty much anywhere, including earlobes. (Talk about the ultimate pierced ears!) Silence starts screaming every time she sees one on herself, yours truly, or our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh. Of course, we give Shiloh monthly applications of Frontline to try to keep ticks and fleas off her (and out of the house). But what about keeping them off us?
Not to mention that the grossness of having this sneaky bloodsucker attaching itself to your body is actually the least of your troubles. Ticks on the East Coast and the North Atlantic area, where we live, are carriers of Lyme disease. Lyme disease in dogs can cause paralysis—talk about terrifying!—but fortunately, a shot can reverse this within half an hour.
Humans who come down with Lyme aren’t that lucky. Silence and I know two people who contracted Lyme disease, and it pretty much wrecked their lives, and the lives of their spouses in consequence. The list of symptoms (typically but not always preceded by a telltale reddish bull’s-eye rash around the bite) include chills, fever, headaches, Bell’s palsy, arthritis, shooting pains, numbness in hands and feet, memory loss, swollen lymph nodes, heart palpitations, and on and on. One friend’s husband suffered deep depression and a complete personality change; our very artistic colleague had a total setback in terms of his work. And years of conventional and alternative, cutting-edge treatments have relieved but not resolved the symptoms. This is not a disease you want to contract.
We don’t like it, but we give Shiloh a dose of Frontline every month, and she’s also had her series of Lyme vaccinations. We know there’s a Lyme vaccine for people, too, but nobody’s talking about it in the media. You hear a lot about flu and shingles vaccines; why not Lyme vaccine?
Dog ticks are comparatively big (roughly the size of a sunflower seed, but swelling exponentially when engorged with your blood or your dog’s), gross, and just as likely to get on you as on your dog. But it’s the teensy-tinesy deer ticks (more correctly, black-legged ticks) that are the transmitters of Lyme disease.
Turns out, pretty much everything we thought we knew about deer ticks is wrong. And what’s right isn’t reassuring. First, the main hosts of the tiny ticks aren’t deer, but white-footed mice, which share the deer’s woodland habitat. And a major source of food for white-footed mice is acorns. (Mice? Acorns? Who knew?) 2010 saw one of the most enormous acorn crops recorded in PA. Coupled with a mild winter, it gave the mice plenty of food and ideal conditions to reproduce. And reproduce they did. As did the ticks that were along for the free ride.
Then, in 2011, the acorn crop took a nosedive, reaching record-low levels. The white-footed mouse population crashed. But ticks are far more resilient than mice. They can wait three years to attach themselves to a food source. (Three years?! OMG.) So they lurk there, on shrubs and branches, waiting to sense a warm-blooded host. And once they do, they drop down, crawl, undetected, to a warm, moist area, and start sucking blood.
Worse still, deer tick nymphs—primary carriers of Lyme disease—are even more invisible than the pinhead-sized adults. They tend to lurk in the grass and other low-lying vegetation and attach themselves to your feet and ankles, where you’re really unlikely to see them.
It takes 3 to 4 days for an infected tick to transmit Lyme disease, so you have a window of opportunity to remove them before they do their worst. And at this point, “their worst” is almost a certainty if you don’t get them off in time—it’s estimated that 9 out of 10 deer ticks in PA now carry Lyme disease.
For those who don’t know, our friend Ben should back up at this point and mention that the name “Lyme disease” has nothing to do with limes, or even Royall Lyme men’s cologne. (To my knowledge, no studies have been done to see if ticks choose their victims based on their cologne.) It’s named for Lyme, Connecticut, where the disease was first diagnosed.
Returning to more practical matters, those who should be most concerned about Lyme disease are folks who live in rural and/or forested areas, people with oak trees on or near their properties, and people whose work and/or recreation takes them outdoors, such as farmers, gardeners, birdwatchers, hikers, hunters, fly fishers, park personnel, landscapers, yard-maintenance crews, and the like.
As children growing up in the tick-ridden South, Silence and I learned the habit of the “tick check”—looking over your feet and legs every time you came indoors in the summer—from the time we could walk. This visual check is highly effective at catching and removing ticks before they have a chance to attach themselves. But it’s not always effective, for one reason: Small and awkward-looking as they are, ticks move really fast. It’s astonishing to see how quickly a tick can move up or across a given space, such as, say, your leg. Yikes!
So what do the experts recommend? Everything from a bunker mentality—basically annihilating your entire landscape and paving, I mean, hardscaping it, then never leaving your house and deck—to wearing white socks so you’ll have a better chance of seeing any ticks before they attach. Washing the clothes you wear outdoors in super-hot water to kill any ticks on them is another recommendation. So is dousing yourself with the insect repellant DEET, dousing your clothes and shoes with the pesticide Permethrin, and buying pesticide-laden outdoor clothing and socks (available through Insect Shield). Spraying or wearing pesticides on your shoes and socks is especially recommended to combat the insidious deer tick nymphs.
Well, I don’t know about you, but Silence and I aren’t about to turn our yard and gardens into a post-nuclear zone. We’re not about to give up gardening and cower in the house. And we’re not about to douse ourselves and our clothes with pesticides.
That leaves visual inspection and that elusive vaccine as the most viable options. True, most people might take a dim view of your hauling your skirt or pants legs up every time you come indoors, but it’s a small price to pay for the relief of knowing you’re tick-free. And what about the Lyme vaccine?
Oh. A chat with my good friend Google revealed to our friend Ben that it was introduced in 1998 and showed a preventive response in 80% of recipients, but was withdrawn from the market in 2002. The Centers for Disease Control and physicians and scientists who specialize in vector-borne infectious diseases (such as Lyme) have lobbied to have the vaccine, or a second-generation version, produced, to no avail. “In my opinion, this is a public health fiasco,” one article quoted Stanley A. Plotkin, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying. “When else do you have a disease with that incidence [at least 30,000 reported cases in 2009 and many undiagnosed] where you know you can prevent it with a vaccine, but you don’t make it?”
Our friend Ben agrees. But lacking the vaccine, it’s wise to be especially wary after this year’s unnaturally warm winter. Experts warn that the tick invasion could begin this month. So stay alert, and please do your tick checks regularly!