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Warm winter triggers 'tick surge' in Western Pennsylvania

| Friday, May 19, 2017, 11:25 p.m.

The tick hype is real, experts say.

The blood-sucking bugs are ubiquitous in Western Pennsylvania. And Lyme disease, commonly passed through ticks, is a major problem.

It could get worse: This year's warm winter brought ticks out in full force earlier than usual.

“There's been a tremendous tick surge already,” said Dr. Jeffrey Pope, a veterinarian at Pittsburgh East Animal Hospital, which has facilities in Greensburg and Monroeville. “People's dogs are picking up ticks just from being walked on leashes in Greensburg. They are everywhere.”

Yet as summer approaches, some say the current scare surrounding a tick-borne virus called Powassan is a bit overblown.

“It's extremely rare,” said Dr. Brian Lamb, an Allegheny Health Network internal medicine physician. “I hate to say it, but it really is being hyped right now.”

Over the past 10 years, about 75 cases of Powassan virus in the United States were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Its symptoms resemble maladies associated with encephalitis — brain swelling, fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures and memory loss.

By comparison, there were more than 12,000 reported cases of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania in 2016, 9,000 in 2015.

“Let's put it this way, I'm not staying inside because of risk of Powassan virus,” Lamb said. “It's a big scary thing to talk about. More people in Pennsylvania had Zika last year than this.”

Each year, more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC. However, the CDC estimates the total number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease could exceed 300,000 annually.

Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, fever, a red distinctive bull's-eye skin rash, flu-like illness and swollen lymph nodes.

People contract the virus when a tick infected with the Lyme disease bacterium attaches and feeds on them.

Left untreated, Lyme can result in neurological disorders, problems with short-term memory, episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath, or heart palpitations.

The CDC recommends anyone bitten by a tick to seek immediate medical attention to prevent more serious complications.

Blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, can carry Lyme and Powassan.

The prevalence of ticks on dogs could lead to Lyme disease on either the household pet or owner, if a tick makes its way to a human.

“Lyme disease is no joke,” Pope said. “It can be debilitating. It can change peoples' lives. With dogs, we are testing positive for Lyme at least once a week.”

He pointed out that vets now have a vaccine available for dogs, and pet owners should apply flea and tick preventative treatments to dogs year-round.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh has seen an increase of tick bites and Lyme disease cases over the past several years, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

When caught early, a four-week antibiotic course usually wipes out the virus, he said.

Keeping ticks off kids in warmer months can be challenging.

Nowalk recommends tick checks when children come inside and lots of DEET repellent.

“The message we intend to send is: Don't wrap your kids in a bubble and keep them inside,” Nowalk said. “But be vigilant.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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