Emerging Tick-Borne Diseases Causing Concern In Mass.

Download Audio

Lyme disease isn't the only illness carried by ticks in Massachusetts. There are two other tick-borne diseases causing increased concern: Babesiosis and Anaplasmosis, and scientists on Cape Cod and the Islands are tracking them closely, collecting ticks for analysis.

"Ooh! We have activity. Ooh. This is scary," said Cape Cod Cooperative Extension entomologist Larry Dapsis as he dragged a pole with a white cloth on the end through leaf litter, weeds and grass along a wooded trail in Brewster recently.

"That is a male deer tick, adult, a female adult. We have a little nymph, which is the size of a poppy seed, that bites," Dapsis said as he pointed out ticks on the collection cloth.

WBUR's Steve Brown caught up with Dapsis again this week in Buzzards Bay, to talk to him about the emerging tick-borne diseases — first, Babesiosis, which can cause serious illness and occasionally be fatal.

Larry Dapsis: Actually, Babesiosis is really kind of a form of malaria. It's a parasite that invades your red blood cells. And so some of the symptomology of Babesiosis is fever, chills, anemia, things like that. It has our attention because Babesiosis  and Anaplasmosis are both increasing in Massachusetts. They're far lower than Lyme at this point. But of note, over half the cases in the state of Babesiosis occur on the Cape and Islands. The other thing that we point out to people is that you can have co-infection, meaning that these ticks can carry more than one pathogen. In fact, with these nymph stage ticks that are basically the size of a poppy seed, in our research, we find that upwards of 15 percent of these ticks can be carrying Lyme plus one of these other two pathogens.

Steve Brown: We're doing this interview right now not too far from the Cape Cod Canal, on the mainland side of the Cape Cod Canal. You say that the Cape and the Islands are ripe for these diseases. Can we consider the canal a barrier of some sorts? Is that keeping it on that side — over on the other side — and should we be concerned that it is going to spread here into southeastern Massachusetts and the rest of the state?

Larry Dapsis, entomologist for Barnstable County (Steve Brown/WBUR)
Larry Dapsis, entomologist for Barnstable County (Steve Brown/WBUR)

Well, ticks don't swim across the canal. That's a fact. But one of the ways ticks disperse is on birds. So ticks that are infected with these other two pathogens can easily be brought over here and then infect the host reservoir population, which we think is mice and other small rodents.

Tell me exactly what it is you do when you go out in the field.

We're working with a particular device to feed deer and try and kill the ticks on the deer before they lay eggs, and things like that. But as part of this project, we have 14 different sites on the Cape and the Islands for surveillance. So it gives us the opportunity to look at distribution of these diseases in the tick population. We send those ticks then to UMass Amherst and they analyze them. And what we're looking at right now is how these pathogens differ from site to site and year to year. The headline on this is that these pathogens are more widely distributed than previously thought.

Are there hot spots in other parts of the state for these other diseases?

Anaplasmosis is kind of interesting in that regard, in that what really jumps off the page is Berkshire County in the southwestern part of the state. So while there are other reportable cases in other counties around the state, Berkshire County kind of pops.

We are in a wooded area right now. Where is a tick going to get on me?

As you look around, we are in perfect tick habitat. It's shady, woods, higher humidity. Ticks don't fly, they don't jump, they don't fall out of trees. These nymph stage ticks are really found in the leaf litter, so the first point of attachment is likely to be your footwear. And then they would crawl up until they find a spot that they choose to settle down and feed.

Talk about some ways that you can prevent getting a tick.

In terms of personal protection, there's kind of a laundry list of things for people to consider. As you are, wearing light-colored clothing, long pants. It's recommended that you can tuck those pants into your socks.

If I were wearing socks.

If you were wearing socks. But I haven't actually seen many people make that bold fashion statement on the Cape. Certainly when you come in from outdoors, tick check. It is mandatory. It's recommended you take your clothes and throw them in the dryer for, say, 20 minutes. When ticks are exposed to high temperatures and low humidity, it kind of changes their attitude about biting. The thing I tell people to consider, especially on their footwear and their trousers, is to use a repellent spray based on a chemical called permethrin. Probably the silver lining in this whole thing is that tick-borne diseases are entirely preventable.

How can people find that right balance — be able to enjoy being outdoors, but prevent getting a tick-borne illness?

What I emphasize to people is don't fear your environment. You should enjoy the outdoors. But understand your environment.

This program aired on June 29, 2012.


More from WBUR

Listen Live