An unusual warm February spell last month may have caused an increasingly growing problem across the state as tiny insects become active in their search for hosts.
One insect, the blacklegged tick, has seen a steady increase in correlation to Lyme disease in Michigan. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the number of Lyme disease cases nationwide could be 10 times higher than what’s actually reported.
According to a recent report which was published in the Detroit Free Press, there were fewer than 30 human cases of Lyme disease reported in Michigan in any year between 2000 and 2004. By 2009, the number had jumped to 90 reported cases and in 2013 it was up to 166 cases.
Some 18 years ago, blacklegged ticks were established in only five counties, according to the Michigan Department of Health of Human Services — Berrien County in the southwestern-most Lower Peninsula, and four counties in the Upper Peninsula — and reported in 22 other counties.
The tick population is also not staying confined to coastal counties, and are becoming more established headed east.
“I would say we have not seen an increase in it locally to that (five-fold) extent,” said Joshua Meyerson, Health Department of Northwest Michigan medical director. “The thing about Lyme disease is yes, there have been more cases nationwide and it has been spreading in geographic regions and there have been cases of it spreading.”
Meyerson said the health department generally does get some cases of Lyme disease reported in its four-county area (Emmet, Charlevoix, Otsego, Antrim), although those are usually cases where people have traveled to other areas outside the state.
“It used to be Wisconsin, or Connecticut, but now it can be they went to the Sleeping Bear Dunes or Grand Traverse County or places like that,” Meyerson said.
Meyerson added in 2016, the health department did not have any confirmed cases of Lyme disease with laboratory confirmation in Emmet County, but there have been cases reported in the past.
“The state through the emerging disease website produces a risk map which included counties up the coast of Lake Michigan and through the U.P.,” Meyerson said. “Charlevoix County was included because the tick which carries the disease was confirmed and found on Beaver Island, which is part of Charlevoix County.”
Meyerson said he wouldn’t be surprised if cases of Lyme disease were to expand to Emmet County and the surrounding inland counties.
“We have similar habitats and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it,” Meyerson said. “But we haven’t had a confirmation. The experts say they catch a ride on birds, which Beaver Island makes a lot of sense coming across from Wisconsin or the Garden Peninsula.”
The ticks thrive in sandy areas with varied plant life and go through three life phases — larva, nymph and adult. They typically reside on plants and branches, waiting for a host animal, including humans and dogs, to brush by.
According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, taking certain types of antibotics for up to three weeks is the best course of treatment when Lyme disease is discovered early.
Scott Kendzierski, Health Department of Northwest Michigan director of emergency preparedness, said Lyme disease is an inflammatory disease which presents itself with a bullseye-like rash, followed by symptoms of headache, fever or chills.
“It’s symptoms are similar actually to norovirus or flu-like symptoms,” Kendzierski said. “It can lead to arthritis or even cardiac disorders.”
Kendzierski said the health department has been watching the spread of Lyme disease and its march northward up the coastline of Lake Michigan since before 2000.
“Just looking at the number of cases nationally, in 1995 it was about 11,000,” Kendzierski said. “Now it’s hovered around 40,000 confirmed and probable cases nationwide, and it could be even higher. We’re seeing this increase as times goes on and it’s concerning for us as it’s been confirmed on Manitou Island and Beaver Island.”
Kendzierski said the health department has a program available where it may receive specimens from the public and identify if the tick is the blacklegged tick, which is then sent to Michigan State University to conduct testing.
“We’ve been doing that for about five years now,” Kendzierski said.
Lyme disease is also all based upon the reproduction cycle of the tick itself, Kendzierski added. Adult males do not carry the disease, but adult females and nymphs do.
“The nymph stage is really important,” Kendzierski said. “The adult female has an infection rate greater than the nymphs, but the nymphs are smaller and harder to find. They may attach to you longer which gives them more opportunity to spread the disease.”
Awareness and prevention is also key once the weather again gets warmer and we get outside, Kendzierski said.
“Ticks like to do a term we call questing,” Kendzierski said. “When they’re in the wild they like to be in low grassy areas or like to climb grasses. When they quest they’re looking for a host to attach to.
“They like to follow the same paths we follow.”
Not only do blacklegged ticks like to attach to humans, but dogs are also at risk, Kendzierski said.
“If you see a change in their energy level or if they become lethargic, have them evaluated by a vetenarian because they are susceptible as well,” Kendzierski said.
Follow Steve Foley on Twitter @SteveFoley8.
TO HELP PREVENT LYME DISEASE
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offers these tick tips:
— On outdoor excursions where blacklegged ticks could be present, use insect repellent that contains 20-30 percent DEET.
— Wear clothing that has been treated with permethrin.
— Take a shower as soon as you can after coming indoors.
— Look for ticks on your body. If a tick is attached to you, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick at the surface of your skin. Pull the tick straight up and out. Don’t twist or jerk the tick — this can cause the mouth parts to break off and stay in the skin.
— Put your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 60 minutes to kill any remaining ticks.
— Hunters and anglers cannot get Lyme disease from dressing carcasses, or eating game meat, but are more likely to be in tick habitats.
— Pets can become hosts for ticks and also become infected with Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. Topical flea and tick treatments are recommended, and a Lyme disease vaccination is available. Consult your veterinarian for more information.