Ticks may be unavoidable in farming, but Dr. Richard Rusk, provincial medical officer of health, says getting bitten isn’t.
The bloodsucking pests are starting to emerge now that the snow is gone and the province is ramping up its annual public education efforts.
The blacklegged tick has once again captured most attention, overshadowing the American dog tick that most rural Manitobans have long accepted as a warm-weather inconvenience. But while both species are out in force, the blacklegged, or deer, tick has become infamous for transmitting Lyme disease (which counts muscle aches, joint, heart and neurological problems and fatigue among its many symptoms), babesiosis (also causing flu-like symptoms and ramping up to anorexia, joint pain and a possible hospital visit), and anaplamosis (which ranges from flu-like symptoms up to 30 days to respiratory and neurological problems, kidney failure and death).
Prevention is once again the province’s top advice, with Manitoba Health Seniors and Active Living pushing tips like using set trails and staying in the centre of hiking paths to avoid contact with vegetation.
That may be a hard sell to farmers, whose very job includes hours outside walking through fields and pastures where the pests are likely to crawl.
But while Rusk admits that farming, by its nature, puts workers at risk, he dismisses the idea that farmers cannot avoid the bite.
“They’re out there and they’re checking their fenceline and they have to walk through that long grass, so if they’ve done some pre-prevention, like they’ve tucked their pants in, they’ve sprayed DEET all over their legs, that sort of stuff, that’s excellent and that required an extra five minutes before they went out,” Rusk said. “Therefore, even more so for our outdoor farming population, our workers like the hydro workers and people who have to go and work outside in the bush, the second component is really, really important. And that is every night, you get in the tub or you get in the shower and you make sure you check yourself.”
The province’s tick campaign encourages people to use a tick-specific repellent, such as those containing DEET, wearing light-coloured clothes to better see ticks before they attach, wearing long shirts and pants and tucking them into socks and laundering clothes immediately and turning up the heat in the dryer after wandering through a blacklegged tick risk area.
Rusk argued that is a small price to pay for minimizing risk, given the potential impact of infection.
“If you get really sick with this or even if you do get bitten and you catch it nice and early, you have to leave the farm and get into town,” he said. “Hopefully you can get an appointment with your doctor so that they can get you treatment early.”
The province stresses early treatment for tick-borne illnesses, since they can be easier to beat back with antibiotics, while untreated cases of Lyme disease can stretch symptoms for months or years and spread to joints, the heart or the nervous system. Late cases are more likely to have symptoms persist even after treatment.
Dr. Kateryn Rochon of the University of Manitoba says it’s difficult to know if this will be a “bad” tick year so early in the season.
A cold spring has put a damper on tick activity so far, she said, although they are out.
The entomologist expects things to change quickly as the weather warms. Ticks will become more active after nightly temperatures rise above 5°, she said.
“They need warmth to be able to move around efficiently,” she said. “They’re cold blooded and so they go with the temperature. That’s why in a sunny spot, they’re going to be much more active right now because it’ll be warmer with direct sunlight.”
Last year marked yet another expansion for the blacklegged tick. The province noted new risk areas near Russell, Dauphin, Minnedosa, Carberry and other regions in western Manitoba. The ticks have been creeping steadily north and west in recent years.
There were 56 cases of Lyme disease last year, down from 64 the year before but higher than any year prior to 2016. Anaplasmosis, likewise, dropped to nine cases from 16 and no cases of babesiosis have been reported since the sole case cropped up in 2016. Last year, however, marked the first cases of bovine anaplasmosis since 2013.
There is no risk to human health from the bovine form of the disease, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency warns that an infected animal can become a carrier for the herd and that, while the illness can be treated with antibiotics to improve body condition for slaughter, there is no long-term treatment.
Rochon estimates that one in four blacklegged ticks is infected with one or more of those three illnesses, although regional risk can vary each year depending on how many smaller hosts, like mice or voles, are infected, bitten, and then pass the pathogen down.
“Pretty much all of southern Manitoba is a risk area,” she said.
Blacklegged ticks are doubly dangerous since both nymphs and adults have a taste for humans, she added.
The province has warned the public to mark the date of a tick bite and watch out for flu-like symptoms in the weeks following.
In practice, the reality might be much more difficult, Rochon said, since blacklegged tick nymphs are notoriously hard to spot.
“Blacklegged ticks tend to be active a little bit earlier than the American dog ticks in the spring and then, in the summer, so in June, the nymphs are active and the nymphs are very small,” she said. “They’re the size of a poppy seed. And if they are infected, they can also transmit pathogens.”
The Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation notes that many who contract the disease don’t remember the bite, likely because it was from a nymph and went unnoticed.
Additionally, not all Lyme disease cases come with the famous bull’s-eye rash and few anaplasmosis or babesiosis will either, usually as a sign of a co-infection with Lyme disease.
General vigilance might be a better policy, Rochon said. The entomologist advised people to be suspicious of any flu-like symptoms during the summer.
Rusk agreed. Summer is outside regular flu season, he said, and the public should get checked if they develop a fever, aches, or other symptoms.
At the same time, Rusk still noted merit with the province’s suggestion that people should mark any bites they get on a calendar. The practice both reminds people to be on guard against symptoms after a bite, but might get a producer to change habits if they see they are continually getting bitten despite their efforts, he said.
This year will be the second for the province’s tick checker program. The program allows the public to submit pictures for identification and suspicious ticks for testing.
About 500 ticks were submitted last year, something that Rusk says has been a boon to surveillance efforts.
Rusk added that farmers may volunteer their land for provincial tick surveys.
“The blacklegged ticks aren’t going away and they’re not displacing the American dog ticks,” Rochon said. “In many instances they do share some of the environment. In some places in Manitoba you’ll find both species in the same place.”
Information on the tick checker is available on the Manitoba Health Seniors and Active Living website.