Tick numbers 'definitely worse than normal'

Sunday, May 10, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- A robust army of ticks is prowling the grasslands of Missouri, and residents' love of nature may be responsible.

Richard Houseman, professor of entomology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said, "In terms of the numbers of calls I get, they're definitely worse than normal."

The tick population explosion has a lot to do with the abundance of habitat and hosts, he said. The burgeoning population of about 4 million deer in the state, the urban deer population and the creation of natural areas even at home are the culprits, he said.

Nature lovers and some conservation workers report anecdotally of people picking up dozens of ticks from grassy areas, and children coming in from nature hikes "covered with ticks."

People started complaining in March, a month earlier than usual, of multiple ticks or inflamed and infected tick bites, said Lois Kendall, a spokeswoman for St. Anthony's Medical Center. More children than adults are reporting tick bites at the hospital's satellite urgent care centers.

Most visits to the emergency room have been because children panicked when they pulled off a tick and the head stayed under the skin, Kendall said.

The St. Louis County Department of Health isn't reporting more tick-borne diseases than normal.

"This is early to see if there's more of a problem or not," said Craig LeFebvre, public information coordinator for the agency, which also has reported one case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever this year.

Even if there is a tick population explosion, "There's not much we can do about it," said Karen Yates, head of the vector-borne disease program with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "All people can do is protect themselves."

Conditions are ripe for an overpopulation of ticks and the diseases they deliver, said Gerardo Camilo, biology professor at St. Louis University. But the state isn't paying enough attention, he said.

"It's not a sexy enough problem," Camilo said.

Conditions including an abundance of deer, rabbits, mice and other animals that have adapted to urban sprawl, plus mild winters, have been ideal for ticks, he said.

For an effective winter kill of ticks, ground temperatures must drop to 26 degrees for 72 hours and penetrate 18 inches into the soil, he said. That didn't happen for the past couple of winters, Camilo said.

Fighting an outbreak of tick-borne disease will be more costly than dealing with the problem now, he warned.

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