The tick population is increasing in West Virginia, with health officials on the lookout for the pests that can spread disease among humans as well as pets.
Eric Dotseth, state public health entomologist, said the West Virginia Department of Health conducts surveys throughout the Mountain State to monitor the tick population. The most prevalent variety in West Virginia is the blacklegged tick — better known as the deer tick.
“Its scientific name is Ixodes Scapularis,” he said. “It is associated with Lyme disease and transmits other diseases. We also have the American dog tick associated with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and the Lone Star tick associated with human ehrlichiosis and could possibly carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.”
While most folks try to avoid ticks, Dotseth travels the state seeking them out.
“I look for them and bring a drag cloth,” he said. “I am particularly interested in the blacklegged tick. We also get submissions from veterinarians. I identify the species and we test them for disease and surveillance purposes. The Division of Natural Resources looks for ticks on deer during harvest season. Occasionally, people send me ticks as well.”
As a result of this research, Dotseth notes a growing tick population.
“Historically, we have seen Lyme disease in the Eastern Panhandle,” he said. “Now we see it moving westward. In 2012, we saw 97 human cases of Lyme disease in nine counties in the eastern part of the state. In 2013 we saw 143 cases in 22 counties. I get very concerned. The blacklegged tick distribution is moving westward. Kanawha County has a blacklegged tick population and I have been getting them from veterinarians as well.”
He said the bitter cold winter had no impact.
“You would think the cold weather would kill them but for the blacklegged tick that does not mean a thing,” he said. “I have found them in the winter and I got them from veterinarians in January.”
He said experts have not determined why the population is increasing.
“I’ve been monitoring areas for the last few years,” he said. “It’s much larger this year based on surveys in recent weeks when compared to 2012 and 2013.”
During the months of May, June and July, they are in the nymph stage and as small as the dot of a pencil, he said.
He said they prefer to be cool and are usually found in forested areas.
He offered precautions for avoiding them.
“Around the house keep the lawn mowed and reduce leaf piles,” he said. “They may also be found in wood piles where mice have carried them.”
If going into the woods, he suggests wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts.
“Wear extra protective clothing,” he said. “Some people tuck their pants legs into their socks.”
A 20 percent Deet pesticide may be used on ankles and wrists for extra care, he said.
“Have your dog or cat on tick prevention,” he said. “They could bring ticks into the house and can get Lyme disease as well.”
According to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the life cycle of the blacklegged tick is about two years. During this time it goes through four life stages, including egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and adult. Once the eggs hatch, the ticks must have a blood meal at every stage to survive.
Once a tick comes in contact, it takes 24 to 48 hours to become embedded, Dotseth said. If it does become stuck to the skin, remove it with tweezers and pull straight up, he said. Then wash the area well with soap and water.
If a tiny rash appears, it is simply a reaction to the tick’s saliva, he said. Body aches and a larger “bulls-eye rash” are signs to call a physician. Symptoms could occur three to 30 days after a bite.
“Physicians can prescribe antibiotics,” said Dotseth, who added it is rare for a case of Lyme disease to be fatal.
For more information call West Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at 304-558-5358.
Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1246.