So far this year, two people in rural communities have died as a result of tick bites. 

Experts say this year, like so many years over the past decade, ticks are a growing problem – something rural residents need to be on the lookout for.

According to Tim McDermott, with Ohio State University Extension, the number of tick species that can cause illness, as well as the number of ticks in general, has been increasing every year for the past decade.

“Generally, I go into every year thinking it’s going to be a big year for ticks because we have usually seen ticks expand into new host ranges over time,” he said in an interview. “I never assume it’s going to be an easy year for ticks.”

Part of the increase is attributable to climate change, he said. Warmer climates are causing tick habitats to expand, meaning tick populations expand as well.

“They take advantage of what they can take advantage of to move to new spaces,” he said. “So now, every year going forward has the potential to be bad, and you should go into each tick season thinking about how you can keep you and your family tick-safe.”

The number of species that are medically important is expanding too, he said. About 20 years ago, he said, there was only one tick species, the deer tick, in Ohio that could potentially make you sick.

“We have five now and they can be active all year round,” he said. “So, when we used to talk about how April through September would be the season where ticks would be the most active, now you can still encounter a tick in December or January.”

And those ticks aren’t just relegated to the woods anymore, he said.

“There’s a myth that ticks just exist in the woods because ticks can exist in pretty much any habitat,” he said. “Some ticks like the American dog tick or the Gulf Coast tick, which we now have in Ohio, would be able to exist in a little more open habitat like a pasture, or hay field, or a meadow or even your backyard lawn.”

The percentage of those ticks carrying diseases is also increasing, he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ticks not only carry Lyme Disease, but can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and other viruses that can make humans ill.

Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) showed that the largest concentration of Lyme disease occurs in 14 states in the U.S., and that they are grouped regionally – in the Northeast and upper Midwest regions (Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin) of the country. In 2017, Minnesota reported 25.2 cases per 100,000 people compared to the national case rate of 9.1 cases per 100,000 people.

People most at risk of bites and infection are those outside in wooded, brushy areas, like outdoor enthusiasts and outdoor workers, the department said.

Annually, cases of all tick-borne diseases reported to the CDC more than doubled to more than 50,000 from 22,527 between 2004 and 2019. A paper in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases said the CDC’s numbers are likely vastly under-reported.

One rare tick-borne disease, Powassan virus, is becoming more common in recent years. Between 2016 and 2020, more than 130 cases of Powassan were reported across America, up from 44 cases reported between 2011 and 2015. Thought to be a contributing factor in the death of Sen. Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina), the Powassan virus is a potentially fatal virus that can cause lasting neurological effects.

According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 neuroinvasive cases of the Powassan virus are fatal, and about half of the survivors of these cases experience long-term neurological health impacts.

On June 8, the Connecticut Department of Public Health announced that a 90-year-old woman from New London County, in the southeast part of the state, died in May from the Powassan virus. The department said it was the second case of Powassan virus reported in the state this year. Between 2017 to 2021, the state reported 12 cases of Powassan, including three in 2021, the department said. Of those, two were fatal.

“This incident reminds us that residents need to take actions to prevent tick bites now through the late fall,” said DPH Commissioner Manisha Juthani, MD, said in a statement.

In April, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced a Waldo County man had died because of the Powassan virus, which the department attributed to a tick bite. The department has identified 14 cases of Powassan since 2010. Nationally, about 25 cases of the Powassan virus are reported each year.

And in February, a park in rural Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, reported that 92% of the ticks tested in the park were positive for the Powassan virus. Between 2008 and 2017, most of the Powassan cases in the country were diagnosed in and around the Great Lakes region, indicating the ticks’ expansion.

McDermott said while the risk of tick bites is rising, and the number of ticks carrying diseases is high, there are ways to protect yourself. One way is properly managing tick habitats, through mowing and keeping your yard clear of brush, tall weeds, and grass. Another is to wear appropriate clothing – light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into socks or boots – and to apply tick repellent on skin, clothing, and footwear.

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