HANSON — When Plymouth County Extension Entomologist Blake Dinius asked a group of Hanson seniors on Monday, June 24, how many had already encountered a tick this year, several hands went up.
Dinius was speaking at the Hanson Multi-Service Senior Center to review the biology of ticks and the diseases they are known to spread within Plymouth County as well as protection methods. The talk was hosted by state Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, and state Sen. Mike Brady, D- Brockton.
The program, videoed by Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV is viewable on YouTube.
Seniors asked right off what symptoms they should be looking for if they do suffer a tick bite.
“They tend to mimic the flu-like symptoms — headache, nausea, sometimes memory loss, sometimes night sweats — but they vary depending on the person and severity of the illness,” Dinius said. “But if you start feeling like you might have the flu in the summer … that would be a good indication to see your primary care provider.”
Cutler thanked Dinius for his participation as well as his employer, Plymouth County Extension Service for their support of the event. Cutler and Brady also provided a lunch, catered by the Olde Hitching Post, for those attending the discussion. Brady was unable to attend.
“Unfortunately, here in Plymouth County, we have one of the highest incidents of Lyme disease, I think, in the nation,” Cutler said as Dinius nodded. “It’s a serious concern. Tick-borne illness is a significant issue for us.”
Dinius said the spraying that goes on in early spring into the fall is a different prevention project to control mosquitos and the viruses they can transmit — West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.
“They usually spray in different areas and have a different method of spraying and treating,” he said.
Dinius, who has studied entomology for seven years and participated in about 200 studies, said he does not offer information he has not personally verified.
He pointed to stories published last year to the effect that a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had found that tick and mosquito-borne diseases have tripled in the U.S. since 2004. The reports misrepresented the scientific findings.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that gets spread around ticks and there’s also a lot of fear that gets spread about ticks, but if you have the right tools and you understand what’s going on, the worry and the fear regarding tick-borne diseases doesn’t have to exist,” he said. “I walk in the woods a lot … and I’ve never gotten a tick-borne disease in my entire life.”
The CDC report, in fact, included a spike in mosquito-spread Zika cases in U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands, Dinius said. Pull out those cases and cases of other mosquito-borne diseases more likely to be found in this area have remained relatively stable.
“I bring this up because we shouldn’t be afraid to go outside,” he said, even though tick-borne illnesses outnumber those spread by mosquitoes.
The CDC has admitted, meanwhile, they may have underestimated the number of cases of Lyme each year. Those cases are concentrated in the northeast and upper Midwest.
Dinius said, however, unlike areas of the country where residents have to contend with earthquakes and tornadoes, Lyme is preventable. It is estimated that Lyme bacteria has been around for between 20,000 and 60,000 years with different species present around the world.
“This disease is ancient,” Dinius said. “It’s also dependent on the black-legged tick.”
There are nine other tick-borne illnesses around this region as well as other illnesses in other parts of the country.
He also spoke of the alpha-gal allergy that causes an allergic reaction to eating beef or beef by-products such as gelatins found in candies and marshmallows. That illness is spread by the Lone Star tick, a southern species found in the northeast.
“Why are there more ticks and more diseases?” Dinius said. “We think there are many things at play here. …Doctors may be becoming more aware of tick-borne diseases in the area. Lyme, when it was first discovered, was called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.”
It is also possible that there are more ticks carrying more diseases, he said. Risk also tends to be higher in suburban communities near the ocean. Fragmented habitat and fewer predators, therefore, maybe more at fault than the deer population for tick-borne illness rates, according to Dinius.
Educating oneself about prevention can lower infection rates, he said.
Spring, when the ticks are then in the tiny nymph stage two to three inches from the ground and fall, when the adults which can be found two to three feet from the ground present high risk for bites. Ticks also require humid conditions to stay alive.
Keeping well-groomed lawns and using a synthetic perimeter yard spray near tree lines can help control ticks.
To protect yourself outdoors, Dinius advises tucking pants into socks to limit tick access to your skin. Permethrin, sprayed on clothing and shoes only, also repels and kills ticks.
DEET, Picaridin or IR3535 (found in Avon’s Skin So Soft with bug guard) are repellants that can be used on the skin. Protecting pets with products recommended by your vet can also keep ticks out of your house.
Checking yourself and pets for ticks after outdoor activity is also recommended.
Saving ticks you find in a dated plastic bag for review by an entomologist can determine if you are at risk for illnesses it may have carried. Dinius said he does those checks free of charge. Taking a photo of the bite to show your doctor can help them diagnose illnesses.
“With the right information and tools, all tick-borne diseases are preventale,” Dinius said.