By Samantha Turner
For the first time in his 20 years of studying Rhode Island’s deer tick population, University of Rhode Island’s tick expert Thomas Mather believes that the recent surge in ticks could pose an exceptional risk for the public health of the state.
In the past two years, Mather and his team of researchers has found record numbers of the insects at the 60 sites they monitor each summer.
“The number of ticks we’re finding is shocking,” said Mather, a professor of entomology and director of URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease. “There is no question that this level of ticks poses a significant threat to public health in Rhode Island.”
The numbers have exploded so much recently that Mather believes “there is nowhere in Rhode Island that doesn’t likely have some.” In other areas of the Ocean State, these ticks are found in exceptional numbers. According to Mather, deer ticks typically live in shaded, wooded or brush-covered areas, including lawn edges with leaf litter.
Lyme disease is only one of several diseases spread by deer ticks. Deer ticks, also known as blacklegged ticks, also transmit babesiosis, anoplasmosis and now three newly-found tick-borne disease threats – a relapsing fever borelia, a deer tick virus and an ehrlichia (a type of bacteria). All three of the newly-found disease threats start with flu-like symptoms. Luckily for Rhode Islanders, Mather’s team has only found evidence of relapsing fever borrelia in Rhode Island’s deer tick population. Lyme, babesia and anaplasma are relatively common in the state’s tick population, however.
Humid summers over the past two years have helped to make Rhode Island a great breeding ground for ticks. In back-to-back years, June has been exceptionally humid.
“Nymphal ticks come out in late May, and if they experience adverse conditions early – bouts of low humidity in June – then some portion of them are killed off and aren’t about to bite people,” said Mather. “The more tick averse moisture events we have in June, the fewer ticks we’ll have.”
Mather also predicts that ticks will be more resilient than usual this fall. With healthier populations of mice and chipmunks this year, ticks likely have had an easier time finding meals.
“[The ticks] won’t go away after a frost,” said Mather.
Despite the prevalence of deer ticks and tick-transmitted diseases, “tick literacy” is still low in the state, said Mather. To help mitigate this, Mather has offered five simple steps for Rhode Islanders to help reduce their risk of contracting any of the diseases transmitted by ticks.
- Wear tick repellent clothing when going outside in tick habitat. Any clothing can be treated with permethrin – a tick repellent that can last for as many as 70 washings. Insect repellents containing DEET are not as effect against ticks
- Perform comprehensive daily tick checks of your body, especially below the belt where tiny ticks are easy to miss.
- Know what kind of ticks are active in your area and how to identify them. If you find a tick on yourself or a pet, don’t throw it out: save it and identify it to better help with a diagnosis if an illness develops.
- Treat your hard with tick-killing insecticides. Insecticide applications applied to the yard’s perimeter, shady perennial beds or along trails and paths in woods can greatly reduce tick activity.
- Protect your pets by using products that rapidly kill or repel ticks. You want to keep your pets healthy, and also avoid them bringing an unwanted guest into your home.
For more information, check out URI’s TickEncounter Resource center at www.tickencounter.org.