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Increases in acorns, mice mean more disease-transmitting ticks this year, expert says

April 19, 2017   /   by Jamie Rogers

Michael von Fricken holds a Mongolian vole

Michael von Fricken holding a Mongolian vole, which was trapped as part of ongoing research investigating potential reservoirs of tick-borne disease. In 2016 von Fricken worked in the Mongolian countryside with teammates from the Institute of Veterinary Medicine located in the Mongolian capital to investigate emerging tick-borne diseases. Photo provided.

This spring and summer will likely be a tough year for those who love animals and the great outdoors because of an increase in the number of disease-transmitting ticks, according to a Mason expert on vector-borne illnesses.

Michael von Fricken, a George Mason University professor in the Department of Global and Community Health, said that oak trees are to blame.

“Fall of 2015 was an oak ‘mast year’ where multiple oak species simultaneously released acorns, which typically occurs every 2 to 5 years,” he said. “This, in turn, resulted in a population surge of white-footed mice, which are reservoirs of Lyme disease, for the following year [2016]. More mice equals more hosts for emerging [tick] larvae.”

The high density of larvae that fed on the population boom of mice are now emerging as nymphs this spring , von Fricken said.

The mild winter didn’t help either and probably means an earlier tick season, he added.

“All of these factors taken together paint a grim picture for Lyme disease and other tick pathogens for East Coast residents this year,” von Fricken said.

Here’s what can be done for added protection against ticks:

  • Actively check for ticks after spending time outdoors or near wooded areas
  • Cover up bare skin and use DEET and other insect repellents
  • Remove excess vegetation from yards

Blacklegged ticks typically need to be attached for 24 to 48 hours to transmit Lyme and other bacterial infections.

If you find a tick attached to you, a loved one or a pet, use tweezers to remove it by applying gentle but consistent pressure, pulling the tick away slowly. After removal, be sure to clean the bite site with rubbing alcohol or soap and water to reduce chance of infection, von Fricken advised. Do not squeeze the body of the tick.

Don’t use matches or apply petroleum jelly as this can irritate the tick and actually increase the risk of infection by causing the tick to release more disease-carrying saliva, von Fricken said.

The risk of transmission from leaving a tick’s head or the hypostome (mouthparts) lodged in the skin is minimal, he added.

Store the removed tick in a plastic bag with the date of removal and freeze the bag.

If symptoms develop, you can send the tick for lab analysis. It’s easier to perform pathogen discovery on an infected tick than it is to isolate bacteria from a blood sample, von Fricken said.  

If you develop abnormal symptoms or see the telltale bull’s-eye—the latter occurring in about 70 percent of Lyme infections—seek medical treatment immediately.

Don’t let ticks keep you from getting outdoors and living life, he said. Just be sure and take the proper precautions.

Michael von Fricken is a professor in the Department of Global and Community Health in the College of Health and Human Services. He can be reached at mvonfric@gmu.edu or 703-993-4677.

 

Michael von Fricken (left) demonstrates how to conduct environmental sampling for ticks as part of a tick-borne disease training workshop. Photo provided.