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How ticks spread disease to humans

According to Rebecca Eisen, a Research Biologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in Fort Collins, Colorado, there are more than 80 species of ticks across the United States.

While 80 certainly sounds like a lot, there are only a dozen known tick species to actually bite humans and spread diseases.

Many assume that ticks are insects or spiders due to their eight legs and flat, oval bodies, but the reality is they are neither.

Ticks are actually arthropods, which means invertebrates with external skeletons and jointed legs. They’re part of a special group of mites that are the size of an apple seed, which helps them remain virtually undetected to the human eye.

While we’re all aware of the common diseases ticks can spread to humans (Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) what’s often unknown is why ticks are so hospitable to such a wide array of disease-causing agents?

“Ticks are parasites, so they have to feed on blood in order to reproduce,” said Greag Ebel, a Professor and Director of the Arthropod-borne and Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “This means ticks often associate with other animals because they need blood from these hosts to survive.”

So, while ticks are perhaps branded the problem among the science and medical communities, the fact of the matter is they only the carrier of infections they acquire by feeding on an infected host (deer, chipmunk, mice, etc.) – not the initiator.

“Ticks typically spread disease by attaching to the skin of the host, which creates a wound,” said Ebel. “While ticks are taking a blood meal, they spit their infected saliva into the wound.”

According to the CDC, “Over the past two decades, seven new tickborne germs that can cause illness have been identified in the United States. CDC’s Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program has supported research to more broadly detect bacteria that may be causing illness in patients with suspected tickborne disease.”

In fact, in early August a rare virus known as Powassan, which is believed to be spread by ticks, claimed its first fatality in New York according to the Ulster County Health Department.

While the reasons for the increase in tick populations and the diseases they carry is continually debated, some attribute it to changes in land use patterns, including reforestation in the United States, as well as changes in climate and ecological relationships.

“It is imperative that all residents take every precaution necessary against tick-borne illnesses, especially during outdoor activities. Residents should vigilantly check themselves and their pets for ticks and tick bites,” said Dr. Carol M. Smith, Ulster County Commissioner of Health and Mental Health.

The best thing you can do is to stay aware and educated by consulting the CDC’s web pages on Avoiding Ticks and Symptoms of Tickborne Illness.

If you’re concerned about the presence of ticks in your yard, SavATree’s arborists can apply a treatment to the ecotone areas (the zone between lawn areas and wooded areas) and to the lawn itself, to provide an immediate reduction in the number of ticks on your landscape. An organic application is also available.

For more information, contact SavATree today.