Ticks and Insects Are Making More People Sick, and the Problem Is Only Getting Worse!

The Cayenne tick, Amblyomma cajennense, can spread Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.Image: Christopher Paddock/James Gathany (CDC)

A new report out Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights a scary reality: Diseases spread by six- and eight-legged bugs are becoming more common. And worse than that, health officials across the country seem woefully incapable of dealing with them.

The report’s authors looked at available data on vector-borne diseases collected through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System from 2004 to 2016. In total, there were over 640,000 reported cases of 16 diseases, and diseases caused by mosquitoes, fleas, and tick bites had more than tripled during that time period. Ticks caused 77 percent of these cases, and the incidence of tickborne diseases more than doubled.

“These data indicate persistent, locality-specific risks and a rising threat from emerging vector-borne diseases, which have increasingly encumbered local and state health departments tasked with preventing, detecting, reporting, and controlling them,” the CDC authors wrote.

Lyme disease was by far the most common disease, accounting for 82 percent of all tickborne illness. But nine germs never before seen in the US were also detected. There were newly discovered diseases, such as the tickborne Heartland and Bourbon viruses. There were also previously known diseases that had never been documented in the US, such as cases of relapsing fever caused by the bacteria Borrelia miyamotoi. And there were diseases that had crossed country borders for the first time, such as local cases of the mosquitoborne Zika virus that plagued Puerto Rico in 2016.

The true toll of vector-borne disease is likely far higher than the official tally, the CDC authors noted. It’s estimated that Lyme disease alone infects 300,000 Americans annually, a number tenfold higher than the reported count. And for every reported serious case of West Nile Virus—the most common mosquitoborne disease in the US—that damages the nervous system, there are anywhere from 30 to 70 milder cases that go unnoticed. Based on that math, there might have actually been between 39,300 to 91,700 of these cases in 2016, compared to the 840 that were reported.

The report doesn’t detail any commonly cited reasons for the increase, most notably climate change, something the World Health Organization cites as a key driver of vector-borne disease. In an interview with the New York Times, lead author of the report and director of the vector-borne diseases division at the CDC, Lyle Peterson, repeatedly refused to point the finger at climate change, only going so far as to discuss the likely importance of warmer weather.

Under different circumstances, Peterson’s hesistance to mention climate change could be seen as nothing more than the actions of a typically cautious scientist. But given that the Trump administration and Trump himself have been reluctant to even utter the phrase, the implications are much more worrying. In a completely normal statement, Peterson went on to tell the Times that he was “not under any pressure to say anything or not say anything” about climate change.

Other scientists aren’t as reluctant to blame it, though.

“We know that poverty is a factor as well as shifts in human migration and transportation,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Texas’ Baylor College of Medicine, told Gizmodo via email. “But also of great importance is climate change.”

Warmer seasons, for instance, expand the territory that troublesome tick and insect species can call home, as well as extend the time that humans come into contact with them. And extreme bursts of hot weather can provide the kindling for mosquitoborne outbreaks to spread further.

Hotez recently published a paper examining the rise of vector-borne diseases within Texas, including Zika, the fleaborne typhus, and Chagas disease, spread by a cousin of bed bugs known as the kissing bug. In it, he noted that by 2050, Texas is expected to spend 80 to 100 days blanketed in sweltering temperatures 95 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, compared to the 40 days a year seen over the previous three decades. That change, coupled with rising sea levels, is likely to contribute to the rise of these diseases.

“So I agree that climate change needs to be put out there as a major driver of vector-borne disease in the US just as it is in Southern Europe (return of malaria to Italy and Greece), schistosomiasis in Corsica, and West Nile Virus across Southern Europe,” said Hotez.

Of immediate concern, too, is the fact that few organizations and health officials have the tools needed to best combat these diseases. A recent national survey, cited by the CDC report, found that 84 percent of vector control organizations are lacking at least one of five essential aspects to their work, such as overall surveillance or ways to monitor growing resistance to pesticides.

[CDC via New York Times]

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Tick & Mosquito Infections Are Rapidly Spreading, CDC Says, & Here’s What You Need To Know!

Summer is actually, for real, truly and honestly, nearly here. I can smell it in the air. For those of us living in the northern part of the North American continent, it’s pretty exciting times after such a long and difficult winter. So the arrival of summer should be nothing but good news, right? Well… yes and no. Because the CDC says tick and mosquito infections are rapidly spreading, so parents are really going to want to stay ahead of the game when it comes to protecting their kids.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a serious increase over the last 10 years in illnesses that can be traced back to mosquito and tick bites. Data collected by the CDC between 2004-2016 found that 640,000 illnesses from flea, tick, and mosquito infections were reported in the United States. Nine new germs have also been introduced or newly discovered since 2004 as well. The real issue appears to be the massive increase in reported cases of vector-borne diseases; vectors are mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas that spread pathogens through their bites. The plague is a vector-borne disease, for instance, and has been around for many years, but there are some new vector-borne diseases, like Heartland virus disease and Bourbon virus disease, which have been discovered more recently. And these vector-borne diseases have more than tripled since 2004; from 27,388 then to 96,075 in 2016.

CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said in a statement on the agency’s website that a “growing list of diseases caused by the bite of an infected mosquito, tick, or flea—have confronted the U.S. in recent years, making a lot of people sick. And we don’t know what will threaten Americans next.”

The goal of the CDC is to try to control the spread of mosquito and tick infections, but there are several issues making it difficult, including the introduction of mosquito-borne illnesses from around the world like the Zika infection, the steady increase of tick diseases, and the need for better public health programs at the state level to track these infections and properly deal with outbreaks if they occur. As CDC director of the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases Lyle Petersen noted:

The data show that we’re seeing a steady increase and spread of tickborne diseases, and an accelerating trend of mosquito-borne diseases introduced from other parts of the world. We need to support state and local health agencies responsible for detecting and responding to these diseases and controlling the mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas that spread them.

With the warmer weather fast approaching, it seems more important than ever to be fully prepared and informed to stave off mosquito and tick bites. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your family from mosquito and tick based infections.

Now before you panic and think to yourself, That’s it, I’m staying inside until winter, it’s OK. There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from mosquito, tick, and flea infections:

• Always use an EPA-registered insect repellent

• Don’t just use the insect repellent on your person; treat things like boots, socks, pants, and tents with permethrin, especially if you’re going to be in a heavily wooded area like a forest. You can also buy permethrin-treated clothing and camping gear.

• Wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants

• Avoid areas where the mosquito population might be heavier, like near standing water in pools

• Treat your pets for flea and tick control

• If you find any ticks or fleas on your pets, get rid of them. It’s also a good idea to check daily.

• Keep air circulating in your house with fans (because mosquitoes are not strong fliers) and keep the outside of your home free of standing water where mosquitoes will breed.

Summer can still be fun and safe, of course, but it’s probably a pretty good idea to take some important steps to protect your family from mosquito, tick, or flea bites before heading outside to enjoy some sunshine.

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