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Twin States Keeping a Sharp Eye Out for Ticks

Right around this time last year, Bill Morris noticed a red rash in the shape of a bull’s-eye appearing on his right side, a few inches below his armpit. Two weeks later, his wife saw a similar rash appear on her shoulder blade.

Each of them had pulled ticks from the affected areas, which left little doubt in Morris’ mind about what the red rashes indicated. Clearly, they had Lyme disease.

“I wasn’t thrilled with that,” said Morris, 70, a retired Dartmouth psychology professor who lives in Piermont.

Morris and his wife, Evelyn Conroy, were treated with antibiotics and recovered just fine without any long-term consequences to their health. But the experience has made them much more careful when venturing outside, particularly at this time of year.

With the onset of warmer spring weather comes ticks. The blood-sucking arachnids are most prevalent between May and August, and along with them the threat of Lyme disease.

The disease, caused by a bacterium that ticks inject into humans they’ve bitten, is a particular problem in the Northeast and especially the Twin States. Vermont and New Hampshire ranked second and third, respectively, in Lyme disease prevalence in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only state with a higher rate of Lyme disease that year was Delaware.

This year, there have already been a couple of cases reported in New Hampshire, said Jodie Dionne-Odom, deputy state epidemiologist in New Hampshire and an assistant professor of infectious disease at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

“The numbers are very small now but the season has just begun,” she said. “There’s no way to tell what’s going to happen.”

Lyme disease is not considered deadly to humans, but it can cause a circular red rash at the point of the bite, as well as fever, chills, headache, fatigue and prolonged joint and muscle pain.

Cases of Lyme disease are generally concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest, and have been increasing steadily over the past decade. In 2011, there were 24,364 confirmed cases in the U.S., up from 17,029 in 2001.

New Hampshire and Vermont have high concentrations of Lyme disease cases. In 2011, there were 887 confirmed cases in New Hampshire and 412 more that were probable, according to the CDC. Vermont, meanwhile, had 476 confirmed cases and 147 probable, a rate of 76 cases for every 100,000 people.

Lyme disease tends to be concentrated in the southern portions of the Twin States, but the Upper Valley sees its fair share. Orange and Windsor counties accounted for 64 confirmed cases in 2011 and Grafton and Sullivan counties combined for 62.

The disease’s name has nothing to do with Lyme, N.H. It was named after Lyme, Conn., where the first outbreak was discovered in 1975.

Nevertheless, Lyme residents John and Kristen Patton have been concerned enough with it and the threat of other tickborne diseases to develop a protective piece of outerwear to guard against them.

The couple have started selling a product called “Lymeez,” which can be worn over the ankles similar to a ski gaiter. The fabric is treated with permethrin, an insect repellent.

John Patton said he had Lyme disease several years ago. It was an experience he doesn’t care to repeat. So, he set out to design a quick and easy way to guard against ticks.

“It’s just a big problem,” Patton said. “The growth rates, they’re extraordinary.”

No one is quite sure why Lyme disease cases have been on the rise, Dionne-Odom said. Some theories suggest global warming; others have blamed human migratory patterns into tick-infested areas. Also, since 2008, health officials have tracked “probable” cases alongside those that have been confirmed, which may have inflated statistics.

If a tick is discovered and removed in less than 24 hours, the chance of infection is greatly reduced, health officials said. Symptoms usually begin within a month of exposure, but the onset can range from three to 32 days, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Antibiotics are typically used to treat people with Lyme disease. There is no vaccine available. One existed more than a decade ago, but was pulled off the market in 2002 after people reported arthritis-like side effects.

Lyme disease is spread in New England by the bite of the black-legged tick, commonly known as the “deer tick.” Recent studies from the New Hampshire Department of Health showed that about 60 percent of deer ticks in many parts of the state were infected with Lyme disease.

The ticks that Morris removed from himself and his wife were dog ticks. He called his doctor’s office and asked whether he needed to be concerned. They said he needn’t worry, as dog ticks don’t spread Lyme disease.

Then, he and Conroy developed the bull’s-eye rashes.

He sent the dog tick taken from his wife to be tested at the University of Massachusetts extension. It came back negative for Lyme disease, leading him to believe that he and his wife were bitten by deer ticks in the exact same places and around the same time as the dog tick bites, and that it was just an extremely unlikely coincidence.

Still, Morris and Conroy have been taking precautions when they step outside. They tuck their pants into their socks and do a full inspection when they return.

“We’re definitely being more careful,” he said.

When removing a tick, health officials recommend grasping the mouthparts with a tweezer as close as possible to the skin. If tweezers aren’t available, use fingers shielded with tissue or rubber gloves.

Attempting to remove ticks by using lit matches can actually increase the threat of disease, health officials said, because it causes ticks to tense up and regurgitate, which then leads to the infection.

For all his concern, Morris said, the threat of contracting tickborne diseases will not significantly changes his habits or lifestyle. He will simply be mindful when heading outdoors.

The Twin States may be an epicenter for Lyme disease in the U.S., but there are trade-offs wherever you go.

“I would be more worried about living in tornado alley or down on the Gulf with hurricanes,” he said. “There are dangers everywhere and (ticks) are one of the ones about living here.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.