Is R.I. Prepared for Another 'Tick-Apocalypse'?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Ticks are pretty much a menace in Rhode Island. Last year, the tick population was the highest recorded by the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center, which dubbed 2012 the “tick-apocalypse.”

To make matters worse, a new disease transmitted by the same tick that carries Lyme disease is now in the Rhode Island. May also is considered the “tickiest” month of the year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease is the most common and fastest-growing bug-borne infectious disease in the United States.

Sam Telford, professor of infectious disease and global health infectious diseases at Tufts University, said there are several causes for the spike in Lyme and other tick diseases. An active aging population is more prone to contracting the illnesses, he said, but mostly “it’s suburbanization and the tremendous increases in deer herds."

Fortunately, Rhode Island has one of the best tick programs in the country and one of the top tick experts leading it, Thomas Mather. The URI professor and director of the center for bug-borne diseases said it’s too soon to tell if 2013 will be as bad as last year, when the five-year average climbed 116 percent for the tiny deer ticks.

Young deer ticks will hatch in the coming weeks, and if the weather is hot and humid they will flourish again. If it’s cooler and drier, their numbers will drop.

Many of last year’s ticks are still around, however. Adult dog and deer ticks that survived the winter are the larger ticks present this time of year.

Ticks also are showing up in more places in Rhode Island. With the exception of cities, nearly all of Rhode Island — coastal and inland — has seen sharp increases in ticks. The Warwick-East Greenwich area has experienced one of the largest increases, to 7.5 times normal.

Making matters worse is a new disease (Borrelia miyamotoi) also transmitted by deer ticks. This new disease came to light after an 80-year-old New Jersey woman became ill with symptoms similar to Lyme disease, such as fatigue, memory and motor impairment, and flu-like symptoms. There has been five cases reported in the Northeast

The treatment is similar to Lyme disease. A study by the Yale School of Public Health and Medicine showed that all of those infected had complete recoveries.

Should people stop hiking or enjoying their backyards?

“What they should be doing is stepping up their game," Mather said. His message for 2103 includes five action steps. One of the most important, especially for hikers and campers, he said is to wear tick-repellent clothing. Anti-tick apparel is made by L.L. Bean and REI, or needs to be applied to clothes with a spray.

The repellent contains the pesticide pemethrin, which Mather said is safe, but is nonetheless considered a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor by the Pesticide Action Network. According to TickEncounter, a hiker could wear 1,200 layers of treated clothing and still not reach a concentration considered unsafe by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

Permethrin and the pesticide bifenthrin also are recommended for spray and granular treatments around homes. Bifenthrin is considered a developmental or reproductive toxin, a possible carcinogen and a suspected endocrine disruptor. But the treatments use “very low concentrations” of the pesticide and are typically applied in spot applications instead of covering an entire yard, according to TickEncounter. TickEncounter also trains applicators to apply the treatment.

Tick tubes are also recommended for keeping mice from spreading Lyme-carrying ticks. According to TickEncounter, the tubes are eco-friendly, with low doses of permethrin. “There really is no risk for environmental contamination, and a toddler would need to consume more than a pound of treated cotton before there would be any chance for toxicity,” according to TickEncounter.

Ticks live mostly where yards border wooded areas, in ornamental plantings and gardens, or shaded areas with leaves and high humidity. A path of woodchips or stone can provide a barrier between tick habitat and a backyard.

Pet owners should also be more careful about where they walk their dogs, Mather said. A brushy area near a curb can attract dozens of ticks to a pet. The ticks are then carried into a home.

Mather said every step to reduce exposure helps reduce the risk of infection. And take action before Memorial Day is especially effective, he said. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to do something," Mather said. "Anything implemented is going to lower the likelihood of getting the disease.”