Traditionally, it’s this time of the year many Central Albertans start the routine of applying gobs of insect repellent to ward off those pesky, blood-sucking mosquitoes.
The good news is that this year, saving a deluge of rain over the next few weeks or so, the ‘skitters’ have been held at bay, being robbed of their prime breeding grounds of standing water due to a mild winter with little snow.
The bad news is, there’s a new blood-sucking creepy crawler making it’s way into this area — the tick — compliments of the mild winter. And they’ve now been reported in Red Deer.
Yes, ticks! The dreaded blood-sucker burrowing into human skin, passing on some pretty nasty viruses, including Lyme disease. Normally associated with heavily treed mountainous and foothills regions in Alberta, this eight-legged ectoparasite has packed it’s bags and moved onto our turf, according to a tick expert.
Daniel Fitzgerald, a parasitologist with the Alberta Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said in a CBC report that more than twice as many ticks as usual have been spotted across the province so far. There’s been reports of the external parasites the past couple of weeks from Lethbridge to Red Deer.
Since this region didn’t experience any lengthy cold snaps over the winter to complain about – which can kill these members of the arachnids’ family — Fitzgerald predicts ticks will be out in droves this spring.
“Because the winter started later, they had more time to get ready for winter,” he told CBC. “And because the winter didn’t get really cold and kill the ticks hiding in the grass, they’re more ready to wake up in the springtime and go out and get a meal.”
So how is it these pest guests have found their way into our urban areas? These critters are ‘hitchhikers’, so to speak. They bum a free ride by attaching themselves to host animals such as moose, deer, mice and birds – which are plentiful in the Red Deer River valley. They also grab on to pets.
“Ticks are not highly mobile on their own and don’t have wings to cover a lot of ground,” says Dr. Bennett Jordan, entomologist and staff scientist for the U.S. National Pest Management Association.
“Instead of actively seeking hosts afoot, ticks will engage in a behaviour called ‘questioning’ in which they climb up to the top of a blade of grass or a leaf and wait for an animal (or person) to brush by,” Jordan told Yahoo Health News. “When this happens they will grab on.”
In a worst-case scenario, ticks can carry Lyme disease contracted from a host animal. The symptoms are multi-fold and can throw one’s entire body out of kilter for months to years. In rare cases it can lead to death.
For the full story on the symptoms it’s best to consult with those in the medical field or Google the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation (CanLyme), a group formed to raise awareness of ticks and the bacteria they carry. Ticks also can carry more than one virus.
Alarmingly, Health Canada reports that Lyme disease is one of the most rapidly emerging infectious diseases in North America. And with new research that Canada’s changing climate is bringing more ticks and Lyme disease to Canada, the threat is more prevalent than ever, says a report by Steven Sternthal, acting director general of Health Canada’s Centre for Food-borne, Environmental and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
“It is impacting our most densely populated regions,” says
Sternthal. “We anticipate the disease will affect over 10,000 Canadians per year by the 2020s.”
Alberta has many types of ticks, including moose ticks, Rocky Mountain spotted ticks and black-legged ticks. So there’s quite a variety out there willing to latch on to you. Just the thought of them burrowing into your skin can bring on a major episode of the heebie-jeebies.
For example, in the late 1960s, after a family vacation to Banff National Park, one of my younger sisters flew into a tantrum and started stomping around like she was auditioning for the River Dance troupe. She had discovered a tick in her hair.
There is an art to removing ticks if they become attached to you. Use tweezers to remove the whole tick, says Fitzgerald. “You don’t want to grab the body, you want to grab it down where it connects with the body,” he says. “You want to avoid squeezing whatever’s in the tick into you.” Outdoors stores also carry tick-removing kits.
With the May long weekend just a few days away, many Central Albertans will be heading into the West Country and our National Parks — prime tick habitat — for the first outdoors outing of the new season.
While most ticks don’t cause health problems, it wouldn’t hurt to take protective measures to repel them this weekend. There’s plenty of information over the Internet, or talk to CanLyme or somebody at an outdoors outfitting store.
If campers encounter a tick, the CBC recommends it’s always best to send the bug in for testing to determine if you’ve been exposed to any infections and make sure it’s safely disposed of.
“Or you could stomp it out and curse it,” joked Fitzgerald.
Rick Zemanek is a former Red Deer Advocate editor