Friday, 22 May 2009

Ticked off!

We don’t have whales to boast about here in East Devon unlike our American cousins on Cape Cod. But among other residents of the natural world that we do have in common there are millions of creatures that flourish in our beautiful surroundings on both sides of the Atlantic. They’re as tiny and as annoying as those Cape Cod whales are breathtakingly gigantic and beautiful.

Lyme disease, the disabling and dangerous illness which starts with a rash on the skin and can lead to nerve damage has reached near epidemic proportions on Cape Cod according to local journalist John VanDerLaan, with Nantucket being called the Lyme capital of the world. And it’s ticks which are to blame, along with the deer which carry them. Photo (c)

Spring has arrived on both sides of the Atlantic, and with the warm weather comes the start of the tick season, surely to be followed by an increase in the number of cases of Lyme disease warns John VanDerLaan. Lyme disease was discovered back in the 1970s when a large number of the residents of Lyme, Connecticut came down with a mysterious illness. But the problem is not of course of American origin. Above: Ticks are often first noticed on the skin of pets. They can grow alarmingly if left attached.
In recent years there has been a significant increase in cases of Lyme disease in the UK, from under 200 in 1997 to nearly 600 in 2005. The rise has been blamed on the growing number of infected ticks carrying the spiral-shaped bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried by some types of ticks which live on sheep, deer, badgers and other warmblooded animals in forested, heathland and moorland areas.

In the UK East Devon MP Hugo Swire has been at the forefront of a campaign to draw attention to the problem and organised a one-day seminar at the House of Commons in November last year. “Lyme disease is like an alien,” he says. “The bacteria tries to take over your body. It is very serious and can make you permanently disabled. We need to be more aware of its dangers and more open to its diagnosis and more determined in its treatment.” Mr Swire was prompted to speak out on the issue by a constituent from Sidmouth, Stella Huyshe-Shires, who contracted the disease in 1999 but was not diagnosed until 2002, and then only because she insisted on a blood test and a referral to a neurologist. She approached the MP because she was concerned that knowledge of the affliction amongst GPs and consultants was insufficient. Above: Hugo Swire with East Devon constituent and Lyme disease victim Stella Huyshe-Shires.

Infected ticks can transmit the organisms during blood feeds, when they may be attached to the skin for several days if left undisturbed. The most common problem associated with the infection is a rash spreading from the site of a tick bite, but other more serious problems can occur. These include a viral-like meningitis, facial palsy, other nerve damage or arthritis.

“No vaccine against Lyme disease is currently available, so tick awareness, appropriate clothing in tick infested areas, and early removal of attached ticks remain the most important prevention measures,” says Mr Swire.

While ticks can attach themselves to humans, most people become aware of the blood-sucking parasites when they discover that their pet cat or dog has an unexpected lump which turns out to be an engorged tick. The pests can be easily removed with a tick hook, available at veterinary practices, but it is important to remove the entire tick including the head. Above: Ticks will bury themselves deep in your pet’s hair or fur. Hook and twist, and the little monster can be disposed of.

“Numerous studies have shown that keeping the deer population at acceptable levels dramatically reduces the incidence of Lyme disease,” says John VanDerLaan. “Some areas of Connecticut, where Lyme disease had reached epidemic proportions, virtually eliminated the disease by reducing the deer population from 30 per square mile to 3 per square mile. Controlling the deer population is one of the keys to reducing the cases of Lyme disease on Cape Cod.”

The same demands are echoed in the UK. The magazine Country Life issued a manifesto in April 2008 which called for a 30% reduction in the wild-deer population to reduce the economic, conservation, human and welfare costs that such numbers bring.

John VanDerLaan points out that while deer ticks are usually found in woodland habitats such as hiking trails, conservation lands and other forested recreational areas, they can be found right in your own backyard. You can protect yourself by following a few simple steps, he says.

• Wear light coloured clothing. Ticks are easier to see against a light background.
• Wear long sleeves and long trousers (U.S. pants). Tuck your trousers/pants into your socks.
• Use appropriate insect repellents.
• Use veterinarian-approved tick control products on pets that are allowed outdoors.
• Keep brush and tall vegetation away from the house.
• Keep bird feeders at a distance as birds may carry ticks.

Do a tick check everyday.

A careful tick check is the most effective way to protect you and your family from Lyme disease. After outdoor activities, brush off clothing thoroughly and do a visual inspection paying particular attention to folded areas such as cuffs, belts and shirt collars.

Do a complete body check on a daily basis. Check children more frequently. Carefully inspect the hairline and scalp as well as difficult-to-see areas such as the back.
A tick needs to be feeding on a host for at least 24 hours in order to transmit the bacteria. Therefore, a daily tick check is imperative to prevent this debilitating illness.
For further information see

Meanwhile, for East Devon residents, some good advice is to eat more venison, such as the excellent meat and sausages supplied by Clinton Devon Estates ranger Tom Garner, pictured here at Budleigh Salterton Farmers’ Market. More information at

Picture credit: Tick photos at
Photo of deer supplied by

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