The Warren County case involved a 51 year old woman who died from Powassan virus after being bitten by the kind of tick that also carries Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, and other coinfections. Rather than publicize the tragedy, to potentially save others from a similar fate, Warren County determined that no statement was necessary because it wasn’t prime time for ticks. The statement, made by Daniel Emmer, is based on an incorrect assumption about tick activity.
Irresponsible Public Health Commentary
According to public health entomologist Tom Mather, director of University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its Tick Encounter Resource Center: “To say it’s no longer tick season, it’s just irresponsible […] There’s hardly a month where you couldn’t encounter a tick.”
While it may be true that ticks are more sluggish in cold weather they are not completely inactive or in hibernation as many seem to think. The warmer weather of the spring and summer do see a resurgence in tick activity but the rise in cases during these months, and into autumn, is also due in part to people having more exposure to ticks simply by being outdoors more often and wearing less protective clothing. Additionally, the majority of ticks during summer tend to be in their nymphal stage, meaning that they are very small and difficult to see with the naked eye.
Ticks in Winter
In winter, ticks are more likely to have already had the blood meal from a host such as a deer, mouse, human, horse, dog or even a lizard that is necessary to allow it to move to its next stage of development. As such, ticks are less frequently searching for food or hosts and so fewer tick bites occur during the colder months, with less tick activity when the temperature is below 20 degrees.
Ticks ‘Reactivated’ in Winter
However, a few days of above-freezing temperatures can ‘reactivate’ ticks especially as ticks particularly like shady, humid spots rather than intense direct sun and dry weather. Due to this misnomer about tick season being over in October or so, many people get caught out by these days of glorious sunshine and balmy temperatures, forgetting to wear protective clothing and tick repellent and being even less likely to do tick checks when returning home from a walk with the dog or other outdoor activity (find out more about keeping your dog tick-free).
Ticks and Mitigating the Risk to Public Health
In Europe, Ixodes ricinus will usually feed on animals between March and October with most activity seen in ticks in Spring and early Summer. This is often followed by a second (smaller) surge in activity in late summer and fall. As global warming is altering the climate and local fauna and flora it is likely that tick ‘season’ will be even less predictable in future, meaning that sensible precautions are necessary year-round, not just during peak tick time. This case highlights, then, how the way we talk about ticks and public health is paramount in aiding (or hindering) the risk of not only Lyme disease but also other illnesses.
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