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Pinning a Bull's Eye on Lyme Disease

Jul 26, 2011 04:58PM ● Published by Anonymous

While many of these diminutive devils are merely annoying to humans, some can transmit debilitating disease. Among these is the blacklegged or deer tick, which carries Borrelia burgdorferi, better known as Lyme disease.

Blacklegged ticks usually feed on deer, but can be found on horses, squirrels, and dogs. While humans are not their primary target, ticks can hitchhike onto us as we pass through underbrush. As deer populations increase in areas frequented by humans, tick populations increase, and that raises the risk of infection.

When deer ticks are in nymph stage, about the size of a poppy seed, they are most active and most likely to infect humans. According to a leading website sponsored by the University of Rhode Island (tickencounter. org), 1 in 5 of all deer tick nymphs active in spring and summer carry the Lyme pathogen. So it is the summer season, with its picnics, mountain vacations, hiking, biking, and exploring the outdoors, that puts us most at risk.

Over the past decade, national as well as local incidence of Lyme disease has risen steadily. In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 454 confirmed cases in the state of Maryland. The latest published count, in 2009, was 1,455 confirmed cases statewide (down from a record 2,576 in 2007). Once bitten, most, but not all, victims develop a “bull’s-eye rash” within two days to four weeks, although the bacteria can remain dormant for months or even years. Absent the rash, Lyme may be difficult to diagnose. Some experts question the reliability of current testing, and the broad array of symptoms mimic many other conditions. However, if a victim is left untreated, more severe arthritic, neurologic, or cardiac damage may occur.

Given the increase in deer populations, rise in confirmed cases, and the problems in diagnosis, scientists are focusing on anti-tick vaccine development and tick-bite prevention. As director of the URI Center for Vector-Borne Diseases, Dr. Thomas Mather has been researching vaccines against Lyme disease for more than a decade, working on such strategies as a transdermal patch. Together with researcher Roberta King, they are currently looking into ways to control tick salivation and interrupt the transmission of the pathogen. Closer to home, University of Maryland (UMD) scientists have developed a genetically engineered fungus that prevents mosquitoes from spreading malaria and has the potential to also reduce transmission of tick-borne diseases like Lyme.

Until these potential marvels are available, outdoor lovers are encouraged to implement their own strategies. According to the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension experts, “Personal precautions against tick bites remain the best means of reducing the risk of contracting Lyme disease.”

Tick-ets to Prevention
• Wear light-colored clothing when moving around in the wooded outdoors (makes ticks easier to spot)
• Wear clothing pre-treated with permethrin (available at www.insectshield.com; www.llbean.com and other sites)
• Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, tucking the pants inside your socks (Relax! Heidi Klum would approve.)
• Apply insect repellant containing DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus, spraying shoes as well (Ticks attack from the ground up!)
• Inspect yourself carefully before you come inside and shake any stowaways off clothing and hair
• Take extra time inspecting children and pets, prime targets for ticks
• If you discover an embedded tick, remove it quickly. (It takes 24-36 hours to inject the Lyme pathogen.) Disinfect the area and use pointed tweezers to grasp the tick right above the head and apply a steady pull upward

 

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