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Ticks are smart insects. Did you know they use their back legs to attach themselves to the tip of a blade of grass or leaf and wait with their front legs outstretched, poised to 'catch' a passing animal or human? When the human or animal host brushes the tick, it latches on, behaviour entomologists call 'questing'.

Ticks even have an innate ability to pick out paths that are well used by hosts and wait patiently beside them. They detect their 'meal ticket' by its breath or body odour, or by sensing its body heat, moisture, even a passing vibration. Scientists believe they can even recognise the shadow of a preferred host.

But, ticks aren't just very clever at getting a blood meal. Like mosquitoes, they too spread potentially fatal diseases at the same time.

In fact, ticks are considered to be second only to mosquitoes as vectors of human infectious diseases across the globe. Since the beginning of the 1980s, more than 15 new tick-borne bacterial diseases have been identified.


A universal health risk


And, ticks are present almost everywhere – in both tropical and temperate climates. They are among the most common causes of serious illnesses involving fever for travellers in sub-Saharan Africa – a fact that many safari goers (and the medical professionals who prepare them for travel) may not appreciate.

While insect-borne diseases 'go with the territory' in Africa (it is, after all, where most of the world's fatal malaria infections occur), diseases spread by ticks are a growing problem in North America and Europe as human populations encroach on the habitat of animal hosts, such as deer.

During the northern spring and summer, ticks are the equivalent of mozzies in the tropics – small, annoying, and potentially VERY dangerous. And, you don't have to be hiking in the wilderness: ticks are common around homes and in local parks, too.

Many live with long-term illness

While many tick-borne diseases can be successfully treated with antibiotics, testing can be inconclusive, resulting in delays in identifying the illness. In turn this can delay a start to effective treatment and result in a longer recovery period.

Sometimes, recovery can take months – or longer. Some people never fully regain their former health.

In the USA, Lyme disease is probably the best known disease spread by ticks and most cases occur in the northeast and upper Midwest states. Exact numbers are difficult to determine and authorities concede that cases are vastly under-reported.

But, thousands of new Lyme infections occur each summer and tens of thousands of Americans now live with the debilitating long-term effects of the disease.

In other regions of North America, ticks also transmit exotically named and sometimes severe diseases likeAnaplasmosisBabesiosisEhrlichiosisRocky Mountain Spotted FeverTickborne relapsing feverTularemia, and 364D Rickettsiosis.

Lyme is also present in Europe, especially in eastern and central countries, while deadly Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever is found in southern and eastern regions (particularly in the former Soviet bloc countries). Most common of all in Europe is tickborne encephalitis (TBE), which is found across much of the Continent and is increasing its geographic range.

HOW TICKS SPREAD DISEASE

After they latch on, the tick grasps the skin of a host, preferring to target the head, neck, or groin. Most ticks insert a barbed feeding tube which helps it stay attached, while some even secrete a cement-like substance for an even firmer bond.

Their saliva has anaesthetic properties – often you won't feel it attach itself. It's why ticks often go unnoticed, especially in sheltered places on the body.

If the host has a blood-borne infection, the tick will ingest it with the blood meal and store the pathogen in its saliva.

After feeding, the tick drops off. Then, when the time's right for another meal, it transfers the disease to its next host.

SIDE STEPPING TICKS

If you are spending time outdoors – especially in rural or forested areas – avoid ticks by:

– Walking in the centre of trails, avoiding wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.

– Wearing long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt.

– Tucking trousers into socks.

– Using an insect repellent containing 20% or more of DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide), picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

– Treat clothing and gear, including boots, socks, pants and your tent, with a solution of permethrin. (It's easy to use and continues to be effective after several washings.)

DO A TICK CHECK – EVERY NIGHT

Ticks are often tiny. They are difficult to avoid in an infested area.

However, they usually don't transmit the diseases they may be carrying until they've been attached for more than 24 hours. So, the longer an infected tick is attached, the greater the risk of infection.

Showering after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) may help to wash off ticks that have not yet taken hold.

Most important of all prevention measures is an end-of-day body scan of yourself, your partner, and children using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body.

Parents should check for ticks under kids' arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, in the groin area, around the waist, and especially in the hairline.

DO'S AND DON'TS OF REMOVING TICKS

There's a right and wrong way to remove ticks:                         tick removal 1 200

DO – Use fine-tipped tweezers or a tick remover, grasp the tick from the side (rather than from above) and as close to the skin's surface as possible.

DO NOT – Grip the tick along its length, as you are more likely to squeeze the contents of its stomach into the bite or onto your skin, neither of which is desirable.)

DO – Pull upward using steady, even pressure.

DO NOT – Twist the tick. You're more likely to cause its mouth to break off and remain in your skin. (If this happens, try to remove the parts left behind. If part of a tick remains imbedded in your skin, seek medical attention.)

DO – After completely removing all traces of the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and wash your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

Read more about removing ticks.

If you develop a rash or fever within 28 days of removing a tick, see your doctor and be sure to mention the tick bite and where and when you were bitten.

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