Study highlights prevalence of ticks in Pittsburgh parks
Ticks infected with Lyme disease are just as prevalent in Pittsburgh’s city parks as they are in residential or recreational areas outside of the city, according to a study conducted by researchers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“The big take-home message is just because you are going out and using a park within a city, doesn’t mean that there isn’t significant Lyme disease risk,” said Thomas Simmons, a biology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an author on the study, published in the Journal of Medical Entomology in September. “You should take the same precautions you would take if you were going out hunting or fishing, or out in a rural area.”
Simmons and his team collected hundreds of ticks — about 200 adults and another 500 nymphs — in four parks across Pittsburgh from the winter of 2015 to the spring of 2016: Frick, in Squirrel Hill; Highland, in Highland Park; Riverview, in Perry North; and Schenley, in Oakland.
About 50% of the adult ticks and about 25% of the tested nymphs were found to be carrying the disease. Those numbers are on par with the number of ticks that typically carry Lyme outside of urban areas, Simmons said.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected blacklegged, or deer, tick.
Ticks are present year-round but are out in the greatest numbers during the spring and summer months.
Symptoms, which usually appear between three and 30 days after a tick bite, could include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, joint pain and a skin rash that looks like a bull’s eye, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics when detected early.
Allegheny County has routinely reported some of the highest numbers of confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the state, according to data provided by the state health department.
In 2018, Allegheny ranked sixth among the state’s 67 counties for the most confirmed cases of Lyme disease, with 404 cases. Butler County, which ranked second, reported 624 cases. Westmoreland County ranked third with 463 cases, according to state health department data.
There were 10,208 cases confirmed by the state Department of Health in 2018, with 26.7% of those cases coming from the southwestern region of the state.
Those numbers are higher according to Allegheny County Health Department data, which has been conducting enhanced monitoring and investigation of local Lyme disease cases for several years.
The Allegheny County Health Department estimates that there were 1,323 confirmed or probable cases of Lyme disease in Allegheny County in 2018, and the number of reports over the past 10 years has “really exploded,” according to Kristen Mertz, a medical epidemiologist with the health department.
Children in the 5-to-14-year-old age group and older adults in the 50-to-69-year-old age groups presented the most cases of Lyme disease in Allegheny County, Mertz said.
“We’re finding that one, it’s all over the county,” Mertz said. “There’s no area of the county that doesn’t report Lyme disease.”
In addition to parks, that also includes residential areas in the city, like backyards, Mertz said.
The family dog could be susceptible to Lyme disease as well.
Humane Animal Rescue clinics around Pittsburgh treated hundreds of cases of Lyme disease this summer, said Dr. Ariella Samson, chief veterinary officer with Humane Animal Rescue.
“The biggest thing to know is that prevention is key,” Samson said, noting that ticks are still active in winter months. “So keeping your pet up to date on flea and tick preventatives year-round is crucial.”
Many dogs do not present symptoms of Lyme disease, but lameness or loss of appetite could be signs that your pet has been infected, Samson said.
Mike Cornell, a naturalist educator and interpretive specialist with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, recommended that both pets and people stick to trails while frolicking in the city’s parks.
“Most of our trails are pretty wide,” Cornell said. “So if you’re staying on the trail, you’re far less likely to get a tick.”
He also suggested wearing long pants, sleeves and socks when possible, as well as wearing repellent that contains at least 20% DEET (diethyltoluamide, the active ingredient in insect sprays).
Moving forward, the City of Pittsburgh will be putting out signs informing visitors about ticks in the city’s parks, according to a statement provided by city spokesperson Keyva Clark.
The city is also planning educational programs, the statement said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .