DYLAN J. BAKER
MANCHESTER -- Hunting season has begun but the deer are not the only things to watch out for in the woods. Ticks are becoming an issue for local hunters, and with Lyme disease on the rise, those in the woods during hunting season should be on the lookout.
"Ticks are awful this year," said local hunter Howard Coolidge. "All the hunters I’ve talked to are worried about getting bit."
Coolidge has also noticed the spike in wood and deer tick populations in the past few years. He said he notices higher concentrations of ticks in areas with thick brush and/or wet conditions like swamps. Added Coolidge, "I’ve brushed off ten ticks at a time walking through the woods. You just have to be alert and check every once in a while."
Steve Parren, a biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, indicated that mild winters are the likely cause of the growing tick population. With no winter kill ticks are able to survive the winter. In addition, mice, who host ticks at the larval stage of the life cycle, and deer, who host ticks in their adult stage also have growing populations as Vermont has experienced warmer weather.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, the number of confirmed and probable human Lyme disease cases reported to the Vermont Department of Health climbed from 105 cases in 2006 to 623 cases in 2011. Counties in Southern Vermont have the highest incidence of Lyme disease. Addison, Rutland, Windham, and Windsor counties are reporting cases at a rate of more than 100 cases per 100,000 people; in Bennington county the rate is even higher, at more than 200 cases per 100,000 people.
Coolidge said he knows too many people who have contracted Lyme disease and it has changed their entire lives. It is something you have to live with on a daily basis, he said.
According to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), ticks do not require a specific host and can thrive by feeding on white-footed mice and other small animals so, when deer numbers are reduced, ticks will find other, more efficient hosts, which can actually increase the risk of humans contracting Lyme disease.
Although hunters are more prone to ticks, the correlation between deer and the spread of Lyme disease is somewhat misguided. According to Linda Huebner, deputy director of the advocacy department with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who has followed the tick situation closely, said Lyme disease is used as a justification for hunting deer on the theory that killing deer will reduce the incidents of Lyme disease. But the data does not support that assertion, she said.
"If you have to boil it down to one key point is that deer are really ineffective at actually spreading Lyme disease," she said. "The ticks can’t infect us with Lyme disease unless they pick up the agent that causes Lyme disease and generally they will contract that from a mouse. That is a gross over-simplification but that is basically the gist of it, that deer are not terribly likely to spread the disease itself."
Although the tick that spreads Lyme disease is called a deer tick and can be found on deer, other animals are more likely the cause of the spread.
"Climate change is partially to blame. It could be warm winters which has created food for a bunch of other little critters, it’s not just mice, plenty of other animals can harbor the bacterium that causes Lyme disease," said Huebner.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria and can be transmitted through the bite of an infected deer tick. The disease was first recognized in 1975 when it was implicated in a mysterious cluster of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis cases in Lyme, Conn.
In most cases, an infected tick must be attached for at least 39 hours in order to transmit Lyme disease. Prompt removal of ticks can prevent infection. The use of tick repellent that contains, ideally, 30 percent DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) can also prevent ticks from sticking to clothing, but should not be used on the skin.