Headlines making the rounds on social media warn of a catastrophic year for deer ticks and Lyme disease in the Eastern U.S. Stories refer to tick ‘warzones’ and say the risk of Lyme will be at an all-time high.
10News set out to verify: Will it be a bad year for ticks in East Tennessee?
The VERIFY team took this question to the the predominant tick expert in East Tennessee: Dr. Graham Hickling at the University of Tennessee. Hickling has studied ticks for years, even partnering with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the East Tennessee Regional Health Department.
He said it’s a tough question to answer because several types of ticks live in East Tennessee, with different life cycles and different diseases.
READ MORE: Officials warn of tick-borne illnesses
Hickling uses a ‘drag cloth’ to collect ticks. It’s a swatch of fabric he drags through the woods to collect the creature, which are fooled into thinking it's a passing animal.
“We use it to determine the abundance and activity of ticks at different times of year,” he said.
Hickling said he used it just last weekend – as tick populations begin to balloon with spring weather.
To put the worry of Lyme in the Northeast in perspective, he says black legged (deer) ticks there are expected to grow exponentially because of a bumper acorn crop. That will lead to more mice, which are a favorite carrier for young Lyme-carrying ticks. These teenage ticks are called nymphs.
But he says that won’t likely be the case in Tennessee. Here, he believes nymphs target a different small creature – lizards. And there is no expected population boom there.
The other difference in Tennessee’s favor is climate. Up North, deer ticks reach adulthood in the summer, confusing humans for deer and spreading Lyme. But in the South, deer ticks are young in the summer and old in the winter – when there’s less opportunity to bite people.
Lyme can be transmitted to a host after the tick has engorged with blood.
When Hickling dragged for ticks over the weekend – he only turned up one deer tick – but he found 35 Lone Star ticks – a more significant threat to people in Tennessee.
The Lone Star tick doesn’t carry Lyme, but it can transmit bacteria ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. He said 99.4% of ticks he collects year round are Lone Stars.
“In Tennessee, every year is a bad year for Lone Stars,” Hickling said. “They’re just now super abundant as deer numbers have come up … so people are running into them all the time and thousands of people are being bitten by them. Fortunately, most of those Lone Stars are not infected with anything.”
He said dog ticks are also common in the suburbs and are often found on pets.
That’s not to say some ticks carrying Lyme are not present in Tennessee. In 2016, 23 cases of Lyme were reported statewide. It’s impossible to say how many people contracted the disease in other areas though.
“There are ticks here across the Southeast that carry Lyme bacteria,” Tamara Chavez-Lindell, an epidemiologist at the East Tennessee Regional Health Office, told 10News in March. “And it’s simply one of the hazards.”
Hickling said the risk of a deer tick biting a human is greater in the winter. And he is concerned by Lyme’s spread southward – it’s now endemic in parts of Southern Virginia and further North.
“200 miles from here you start to see high levels of Lyme, and that’s new in the last five years,” Hickling said.
He believes that spread will continue to East Tennessee in the next 10 years.
While Tennessee’s climate may help stop the spread of Lyme, state officials say the weather this year may be an issue.
“Our mild winter and early warm weather have created conditions that are conducive to tick and other insect populations,” said Shelley Walker, Deputy Director for the Dept. of Health. “We don’t track insect populations, but we are always concerned about the risks of illnesses spread by ticks and work to inform people of simple steps they can take to reduce their risks.”
She noted in 2016, 581 cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever were diagnosed in Tennessee. From 2004 to 2014, 16 people died of the disease.
Through May 6 of this year, 35 cases of spotted fever have been reported statewide. 41 cases were reported at this point in 2016.
“All common tick-borne diseases found in Tennessee can be easily treated with antibiotics if detected early,” Walker said.
VERIFY: Overall tick threat
So to the question: will it be a bad year for ticks in East Tennessee? Hickling said it depends on the species. For Lyme-carrying deer ticks? Likely not. But for Lone Stars:
“Each year in Tennessee is a little worse than the year before, and part of that is we are finding new disease agents,” Hickling said. “The background issue is we do have a real problem with many more ticks than we did in past decades. People in Tennessee 50 years ago could be out recreating in the woods and not have to worry, but now we do have to worry.”
So 10News can verify: "Will this be a bad year for ticks in East Tennessee?" is likely false.
Between Chavez-Lindell and Hickling, they recommend several practices to avoid tick-borne disease:
- Use a bug spray with 20-30% DEET on exposed skin, and consider spraying clothing with permethrin.
- Avoid tall grass, brush and overhanging limbs. When hiking, stick to the center of the trail.
- Tuck pants into boots or socks
- Perform a tick check every night and remove any embedded critters as soon as possible with a tweezers. The less time a tick is attached, the lower the infection risk.
READ MORE: Officials warn of tick-borne illnesses
BACKGROUND: Learn more about Dr. Hickling's expertise
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