Deer ticks and Lyme disease appearing in Vermont

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(Host) Lyme disease is a potentially debilitating illness, transmitted to humans mainly by the deer tick. The vast majority of infections occur to our south, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. But now researchers have found more deer ticks in Vermont, and they’re concerned about the disease spreading northward.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) The common wisdom used to be that there were no deer ticks in Vermont. Cases of Lyme disease were thought to be imported from other states. But between 1999 and 2001, the state Health Department has documented 22 cases believed to have originated in Vermont. Unconfirmed numbers for 2002 show 11 locally contracted cases. Patricia Tassler is an epidemiologist with the Vermont Department of Health:

(Tassler) “It is possible to get Lyme disease in Vermont, although it’s not a very common infection.”

(Keese) Deer ticks look like ordinary dog ticks except they’re smaller, about the size of a sesame seed. That can make them hard to spot.

Scientists speculate that the ticks have entered the state on pets as people and their dogs become more mobile. Others say the ticks have inched northward up the Connecticut Valley. Tassler says the documented Vermont infections came from nine different counties around the state.

In recent years several Vermont agencies have been working together to monitor the state’s tick populations. One study has involved ticks of all types collected by veterinarians. Trish Hanson, an entomologist with the state forestry division, says the overwhelming majority of ticks collected this year have been deer ticks.

No one knows what percentage of the ticks carry the Lyme pathogen. Hanson says the Vermont researchers haven’t tested the ticks for the disease, though they may begin doing that soon.

(Hanson) “In fact we really feel like we’re sort of on the ground floor in trying to figure out what we have in the state and where these ticks occur.”

(Keese) Some veterinarians have been screening pets. Dr. Ron Veenema of the Vermont-New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic in Dummerston, says cases of Lyme disease in dogs are definitely on the rise, at least in Southeastern Vermont.

(Veenema) “I know that it’s at least 150 cases last year that we had positive tests on. So it does definitely seem to be true that the ticks in our area seem to be carrying Lyme disease.”

(Keese) The good news is that Lyme disease is treatable, especially if it’s discovered early. According to Tassler, early signs include a circular red rash that looks like a bulls-eye. Other symptoms can include fatigue, headache, fever and chills, achy joints and swollen glands.

Tassler says prevention is the best cure. Insect repellant with DEET is effective against tick bites. Tucking your pants into your socks is a good idea when working in woods or fields. Most important are routine tick checks. If a tick is removed within 24 hours after a bite, Tassler says, it’s unlikely that infection will occur.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Dummerston.

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