MIKE MASTERSON: Ticked off

Diseases on rise

Posted: July 1, 2018 at 5:30 a.m.

There's a tiny world constantly swarming around us, teeming with life forms that can have profound effects on our health and lives. I'm talking about microbes, bacteria and the infections they can cause when spread by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas.

It's sobering to realize some 200 million insects exist for every human.

If you're anything like me, you've spent parts of your lifetime hiking, camping and exploring woods, streams and fields. As a kid, nothing made me feel more alive than becoming lost in the sense of wonder that existed outside my home.

Of course, with such freedom came the inevitable consequences of wading through lots of deep greenery: Ticks, chiggers and poisonous weeds waited for a brush of bare skin. It was Mom who usually discovered mine before using tweezers or a heated needle to end a tick's free meal. The result was a red bump for a day or two. And that proved pretty much the extent of any consequences six decades ago.

But today it's a far different story. It seems these 2018 ticks in even short vegetation hoping to catch a ride and meal are a different, more potentially virulent breed. The wise among us pay close attention since they leave some nasty, sometimes permanent, health consequences by sharing various forms of the bacteria they carry.

Ticks aren't insects at all, but rather arachnids, like spiders and scorpions. Whatever their DNA, I wish they'd leave our bloodstreams alone.

I read the other day that not only the number of tick-borne, but also mosquito-borne illnesses have escalated dramatically in recent years. No one seems to know what's behind the concerning trend. Some speculate it's the warming climes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes more than tripled from 2004 to 2016, going from 27,388 to 96,075 cases reported nationally. Those are only the ones reported, which naturally raises potentially larger problems.

And here's what grabbed my attention most of all. More than half of the increased cases were reported between 2015 and 2016.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is the most common tick-borne disease in Arkansas. In 2016, the Department of Health counted 808 cases; there were also 198 cases of ehrlichiosis and 32 of tularemia, two other prevalent tick-related diseases.

In Alabama the number of Rocky Mountain cases spiked from 288 in 2015 to 453 cases in 2016. This serious disease, which largely infects two types of dog ticks in Arkansas and surrounding states, can claim the lives of as many as 10 percent of victims if diagnosed too late.

Eighty-two percent of reported tick-borne disease cases nationally involved Lyme Disease, though the CDC said the actual total is likely quite higher. According to the CDC's definition for Lyme, Arkansas is considered a low-incidence state. That means fewer than 10 confirmed cases per 100,000 people in the previous three reporting years. The bulk, 95 percent, of Lyme cases come from only 14 states.

CDC researchers said they also examined illnesses caused by flea bites over 13 years and discovered 89 cases of plague nationally. The plague! That's enough to tick me off (sorry).

There are other disturbing findings. Deer ticks carry a disease called babesiosis, which is akin to malaria. There had been no instances of that ailment reported in 2010, but by 2016, there'd been more than 1,900 documented cases.

Then there is anaplasmosis, which according to UCLA "Ask the Doctor" physicians Eve Glazier and Elizabeth Ko is another bacterium carried by deer ticks. While not considered quite as serious as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, if left untreated, anaplasmosis can cause serious medical problems, including kidney failure.

The scary part here is reported anaplasmosis cases also skyrocketed over 650 percent in recent years from 875 in 2004 to 5,750 cases by 2016.

The news has been slightly better when it come to disease and mosquito bites. The number of West Nile Virus cases reported in 2012 was 5,764, which had been cut in half by 2016.

However, the Zika virus, also spread by mosquitoes, went from zero reported cases in 2015 to 41,680 in 2016, most all of which were in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and American Samoa, the CDC reported.

Nine new germs spread by ticks and mosquitoes have been identified since 2004, the California doctors wrote.

So it doesn't take the scientific rockets among us to recognize how wise it is nowadays to cover our arms and legs when headed into grass and weeds, or any vegetation for that matter. Use insect repellent and always check carefully afterwards for ticks.

The times, they are rapidly changing even when it comes to disease-ridden arachnids. And I suspect their ability to harm us physically could become even worse before it might become better, including out on a golf course or creek bank where I seem to collect my share.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 07/01/2018