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Ticks, Lyme disease warrant caution but not panic during summer

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 10:36 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Dr. William Hope (left) visits with Brandon Kniha, of North Huntingdon, and his dog Cole on July 5, 2013, at Hope Veterinary Hospital in West Newton.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Dr. William Hope demonstrates using a comb to look for ticks on a dog July 5, 2013, at Hope Veterinary Hospital in West Newton.

These are different times for William Hope.

A veterinarian at Hope Veterinary Clinic in West Newton, he has seen new technologies become a part of medicine, new vaccines hit the market and new generations of patients. But it's something else that really stands out.

That's the prevalence of ticks.

“When I started this practice I never saw a tick,” said Hope, who began his career in the 1970s. “I didn't know a dog tick from a deer tick. I didn't have to play with them then.

“Now, literally, I see them almost every day.”

Especially at this time of year. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the months of April through July are prime time for ticks in the nymphal stage to look for new hosts — i.e. you and your hunting dog — to latch on to.

Whether that's just irritating or something worse can vary.

Some ticks, though not all, carry Lyme disease, an inflammatory disease that most typically causes a bull's-eye rash that's followed by fevers, chills, headaches, muscle aches and joint pain. Get bit by a tick that latches on to your skin and goes undetected for a period of two days or so, and you can contract Lyme disease.

About 20,000 to 30,000 people contract the disease annually, according to the National Centers for Disease Control. Confirmed cases of Lyme have ranged from a low of 19,804 in 2004 to a high of 29,959 in 2009.

About 96 percent of all cases nationally were confined to 13 states in 2011. Pennsylvania was one of those, and actually had the most cases, with 4,739.

A couple of southeastern Pennsylvania counties are worst for the disease. Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties had 759, 586 and 415, respectively, in 2011, the most recent year for which final statistics are available.

Locally, the disease appears in a hit-and-miss, almost random way.

There were 52 cases of Lyme disease in Armstrong County in 2009, according to the Department of Health. That rose to 73 cases in 2010 and 146 in 2011. In Butler County, cases totaled 189 in 2009, dropped to 152 in 2010 and rose to 224 in 2011.

In Indiana cases have gone from 19 to 34 to 78, and in Westmoreland from 13 to 15 to 44, over that same time.

In Allegheny County, though, the number of cases has actually gone down over time, from 27 in 2009 to 18 in 2010 to fewer than three last year. Neither Somerset nor Fayette counties have ever had more than four cases reported in a year's time. Greene County hasn't had a single reported case in the last three years.

“It can vary from even valley to valley in my experience,” Hope said. “Ticks might be bad in Sutersville but not in West Newton. They might be bad in Donora but not in Webster.”

Of course, none of that matters if you're the one person to contract Lyme, or if your favorite hunting dog gets it.

That's why “prevention is key,” said Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

“As the weather becomes nicer, residents spend more time outdoors and don't wear layers and layers of clothing — leaving them open to be being bitten by an infected tick,” she said.

Outdoors people — hunters, anglers, hikers, campers and the like — are among the highest risk groups for getting bitten by a tick and contracting Lyme, simply because of where they go to play.

But that doesn't mean you should be afraid to go outside, or worry incessantly while outdoors, said Phillip Baker, executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

“If you go into the outdoors a lot, it is something to consider. But there's no need to panic,” Baker said.

Even if you do get bitten by an infected tick, it has to remain attached to you for 36 to 48 hours to spread the disease, he said.

“It's not like if you don't get the tick out right away all is lost. Forget that,” Baker said.

If caught in its early stages, the disease is easily combated with oral antibiotics, he added.

Still, it makes sense to minimize your risk when outdoors. Apply repellents with DEET — the same kind you would use to keep mosquitoes at bay — to your skin when going outside, Baker said. Spray products containing permethrin on your clothes. Wear long sleeves and pants.

Do a full-body check to look for ticks after a day afield, Gillis added.

Do all those things, but don't shy away from getting outdoors because of fear about ticks.

“There's a lot of hysteria out there, a lot of hooey,” Baker said. “But people who live in areas with a lot of Lyme disease still do just fine.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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