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November 28, 2006

Don't get ticked on this winter

Tick season has arrived again, and taking precautions before strolling through the woods can prevent bites and possible illness this winter, local health officials said.

From November through April, the cool, wet environment of local parks and wooded areas is a prime breeding ground for several species of the tiny bloodsuckers, including the one whose bite causes Lyme disease.

A recent study in 2003 by San Jose State entomologists found ticks in several local parks, including Big Basin State Park, DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Some of ticks carried the Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi.

Even so, Lyme disease is not a huge problem in the area, said Will Forest, a county health department epidemiologist. There were three to eight diagnosed cases between 2002 and 2004 in Santa Cruz County, amounting to about 6 percent of all California cases.

Santa Cruz County only has about 0.7 percent of the California population, so that number is higher than average.

There were 97 cases in California out of 23,763 total in the United States in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This amounts to 0.41 percent of all cases nationwide.

Forest said it is difficult to diagnose the disease, and numbers are unreliable.

"It's a reportable disease," he said, "but doctors can report it wrong or can fail to report it properly. It's dubious, I'm afraid."

The California tick that carries Borrelia is the Western black-legged tick, a small reddish-brown cousin of the East Coast deer tick.

The black-legged tick waits on the tip of plants, hoping a host, such as a dog or human, will brush by the plant and pick them up.

Once the creature hits skin, it clamps down hard, and prepares to feast on its host's blood.

The tick sucks blood into its stomach, where it mixes with bacteria, and regurgitates blood back into the host while feeding.

In humans, the infection leads to fever, chills, a ring-like rash, and body ache, but the symptoms are inconsistent, said Sheri Sobin, a nurse practitioner and patient care coordinator at UCSC's Student Health Center.

Deer, a main food source for the ticks, roam freely on campus. But Sobin said, in spite of seeing several students with tick bites every year, Lyme disease cases are few and far between.

Forest says transmission rates are low.

"A tick attached for less than 24 hours probably cannot transmit Lyme disease — so if you can be confident that you removed the tick before it had been attached for 24 hours, there's really no reason for concern," Forest said.

But the ticks are small, and can be missed, according to Paul Binding, with the county's Mosquito and Vector Control District, so he cautions people walking to check themselves and their pets every time they leave a park.

Binding cautions people to remove ticks with tweezers as soon as possible, and save it for identification.

It needs to be alive, he said, so it is best to store the tick in a plastic bag with a wet cotton ball. He also reminds people to wash their hands after handling the bugs.

Dogs are prone to picking up ticks in parks, and veterinarians, such as Beverly Hill at Scotts Valley Vet Clinic, carry special tweezers to remove them from her four-legged patients.

As in humans, the symptoms of a black-legged tick bite are subtle and can often be mistaken for other illnesses. There is a test, she said, but as with humans, it is not completely reliable. Prevention is key.

"Every outing, everywhere they've been, you have to check for clingers-on," she said.

Contact Megha Satyanarayanaat [email protected]

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