July 11, 1997

Ticks in Kansas can carry three different diseases

By Dann Hayes

The white-tailed deer population has soared in Kansas, sparking a debate on wildlife management and highway safety. But what has taken a back seat in the controversy is an increase in population of a little-noticed hitchhiker on the deer - the tick.

A KU researcher warns that as the number of ticks increases, so can the potential transmission of illnesses associated with them.

"It's important to note that there are more than one species of tick in Kansas that people are going to come into contact with," said J. Gregory Burg, assistant director of undergraduate biology at KU. "And each one has a particular disease it can transmit or carry."

Ticks found in Kansas can carry three different diseases, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Burg was quick to add that the chances of an affected tick attaching itself to a human is very remote and that all of the illnesses can be treated with antibiotics.

The adult black-legged tick is suspected in most of the 35 cases of Lyme disease reported in Kansas in 1996, a banner year for the disease.

"As of June 28, there have not been any reported cases of Lyme disease in Kansas this year," he said. "In comparison, by this time in 1996, there were already 20 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

Although Burg can't attribute the sudden drop in illnesses to any one reason, he suspects that the initial rise is directly attributed to the growing population of white-tailed deer, a prime host for the adult tick.

"The adult ticks that carry Lyme disease like to feed on deer," he said. "And as the deer population expands, the tick is carried into new areas."

Lyme disease, which is characterized by a skin rash, headache and fever, is not fatal. But another tick, the American dog tick, can carry a potentially deadly disease - Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This disease, characterized by fever, muscular pains and skin eruptions, can be fatal if not treated correctly.

"Although Lyme disease is getting the headlines, I think it is important that people know that Rocky Mountain spotted fever is still around," he said. The American dog tick isn't known to use deer as a host.

A third tick - the lone star tick, named for a distinct white spot on the back of the female - is thought to carry an illness called human monocytic ehrlichiosis. The disease bacteria attack white blood cells in the circulatory system. This tick also attaches to deer.

Although the three diseases are common to the three species of ticks found in Kansas, Burg says there is no reason to panic - not all the ticks carry a disease. In fact, less than 1 percent of the tick population in Kansas carries a transmittable illness. And the sooner you find the tick, the better.

"For all of these tick-born diseases, once the tick has attached itself, it takes a minimum of 24 hours for the transmission of the disease to take place," Burg said. "In the case of Lyme disease, it takes 48 hours or more for the disease to be transmitted."

Ticks vary on where they attach to the body. For example, the American dog tick likes to attach itself around the hairline. The lone star tick attaches almost anywhere. Burg adds that ticks don't necessarily stay in areas where you sweat or where your clothes are tight.

"That's more for chiggers and other critters," he said.

The best method of tick control is to keep them from attaching. Ticks attach themselves to a host by waiting for something to brush against whatever they are resting on - grass, bushes or weeds. To help ward off ticks, wear long, light-colored pants tucked into long, light-colored socks. The dark-colored ticks show up against the light color for easy detection.

Examine your entire body after spending time outdoors. Parents should carefully examine children.

"Once the tick has attached itself, bathing doesn't help," Burg said. "The best method of removing them is to grasp the tick at the skin surface with fine-tipped tweezers and slowly pull them out."

Both lone star and black-legged ticks will feed on humans throughout their life stages - larvae, nymph and adult.

Only the adult stage of American dog ticks will attach to humans and feed on them.

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