One controversial strategy for Lyme disease prevention focuses on reducing the number of animal hosts available to act as a reservoir for the infectious bacteria. Deer have been a key target in these types of strategies as they are often blamed for maintaining the tick population and bringing ticks into close contact with humans through their increasing presence in urban areas including yards and gardens. As human development has encroached further on wooded areas the deer have become a regular feature of many an evening stroll or early morning amble and may even be observed eating from back-yard fruit-trees where fencing is inadequate. The ticks feeding on the deer can then drop off into the grass or shrubbery around a home garden and become a problem when homeowners, their children, and their pets, use the garden or yard for recreation.
Infection with Lyme More Likely at Home
More people are thought to be infected through exposure to ticks in their yard than through occupational exposure, when out hiking, or when engaged in other outdoor activities. The main reason for this is that people consciously use Lyme disease prevention strategies when intending to spend time in the great outdoors but very few people will remember to apply insect repellent and tuck pants into socks when simply crossing the yard to water their azaleas. Local health agencies try to encourage Lyme disease awareness and the adoption of good prevention strategies through educational leaflets, public talks, and through schools, and medical centers. The basic advice is to limit skin exposure in areas where ticks may be present by wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts and tucking these into socks and waistband respectively. Sandals are not recommended as ticks can easily hide in-between toes and remain unobserved whilst feeding. Insect repellents and anti-tick treatments such as Deet and permethrin are not advised to be directly applied to the skin and should be used on clothing instead.
Flagging for Lyme Disease Ticks
The process of ‘flagging’ can be carried out so as to assess the number of ticks in the garden, yard, or local park. This involves the fashioning of a home-made white flag attached to a long stick which is then swung at knee height, or thereabouts, as you walk around the garden or park for a few minutes. Wear protective clothing whilst doing this as the movement of the flag will cause any ticks present to jump out of the grass or brush onto the flag, or a nearby hand or leg. Then check the flag and conduct a tick count to give you an idea of how many are lurking just in your back yard. Doing this activity and then showing children the results can help in teaching them to be tick aware as it is hard to encourage preventative strategies when the supposed threat is not easily observed.
Minimize Ticks in the Garden
Simple steps should be taken to reduce the likely exposure to ticks, such as clearing any old wood piles or piles of leaves on a property, fencing off vegetable gardens and fruit trees so as to keep deer away, and keeping grass short where possible. As mice are also a key host reservoir for ticks carrying Lyme disease bacteria it is often helpful to employ strategies to reduce the presence of rodents on home property as well. Whilst getting a cat for this reason alone is not recommended, household pets may be useful in keeping mice at bay. Avoiding the storage of grains or easily accessible food also helps, as does the ready removal of wood piles that may serve as a home for mice. Having a clear path from the front door to the car or off the property is also a good idea, with paving to stop ticks getting too close to the house. Overgrown shrubbery should be kept away from paths so as to limit daily exposure to ticks. Employing good landscaping practices, even in our own backyards can significantly reduce the risk of contracting Lyme disease in all family members, including pets.
Another arm of Lyme disease prevention strategies involves the testing of ticks to ascertain the rate of infection with Borrelia in an area. A number of universities in various American states have done this type of research but it is only just beginning to be conducted in states where Lyme disease is considered a rare possibility. Those bitten by a tick or who remove a tick from a pet or family member can save the tick (in tupperware in the freezer) for testing at an appropriate laboratory. Contacting the local health authority is the best option to determine where to send a sample for a Lyme disease tick check. In Canada the ticks are checked to see if they are Ixodes scapularis, the blacklegged tick, and if they are then they will be forwarded to the National Microbiology Laboratory and tested for Borrelia, the Lyme disease bacteria. Only ticks collected from humans are sent for identification however, not those collected from animals.
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