Editorial: The battle against ‘filthy little devils’

Sunday, July 30, 2017

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen: “If there’s anything in New Hampshire’s forests and fields that we hate it’s ticks. Filthy little devils.”

Remember the scene where Katharine Hepburn rubs salt all over the leeches clinging to Bogey. The terrestrial version of that scene probably occurs daily.

Try biking down a power line trail that hasn’t been brushed out in a while or cut through tall grass or bushes on the Seacoast and you’re likely to experience the same kind of horror Bogey and Kate did.

A black-legged tick nymph fully capable of transmitting disease can fit easily between the arms of the E in the word “cent” on the bottom of a penny. Rather than cede the outdoors to tiny blood-sucking zombies, humans should take precautions, reduce risk and support what so far has been a poorly funded effort to come up with vaccines that can protect against tick-borne diseases and more effective ways to identify and treat their victims.

Ticks are in the arachnid family, along with spiders and scorpions, which New Hampshire doesn’t have – yet. Pseudoscorpions, tiny pincers-wielding arachnids, do live in the state but they’re harmless. Unlike their taxonomic relatives, some tick species are eager to feed on humans.

When they’re seeking a meal from a mammal by climbing to the tip of a blade of grass or the end of a twig, ticks are said to be “questing.” That’s too noble a word for pursuit by tiny bloodsuckers with mouth parts, seen with a microscope, that look like a Swiss Army knife designed in Hell. Ambush is more like it.

Last week, an article in the New York Times warned that ticks, taking advantage of a warming climate, are extending their range and staying active longer. Along with the ticks came illness and diseases that can be debilitating, incapacitating or even fatal.

Black-legged ticks can transmit not just Lyme disease but Powassan virus, which can be fatal.

Fortunately that virus remains rare, but half the black-legged ticks in Merrimack County have been found to be infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

Dr. Alan Eaton, an entomologist and UNH Extension Service professor, has in his quiet, non-hysterical way, been warning about the diseases described in the Times for years.

He’s seen the number of Lyme disease cases increase as relentlessly as a questing tick.

New Hampshire, in some years, leads the nation in the number of Lyme disease cases per capita. There were nearly 1,700 reported cases in 2013 and 1,400 in 2014. Many cases go unreported.

Tick-borne diseases such as babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, tularemia, tick paralysis and others are less common but do occur in New Hampshire. Lone Star ticks, which are still rare in the state, can transmit a bizarre malady called alpha-gal syndrome, which results in an allergy to red meat. Every burger chain and steak house should be contributing to the research effort to prevent that illness.

Nothing will reduce the odds of a tick bite to zero. They can, for example, hitchhike into homes on pets, but basic prevention involves the use of a bug repellant containing DEET, permethrin sprayed on outdoor wear, regular tick checks and a hot shower after passing through tick territory.

Lawns should be kept mowed to make them inhospitable to ticks and paths widened to prevent contact with brush or tall grass.

To learn more about combating ticks, go to the UNH Extension Service website (extension.unh.edu/resources/files/resource000528_rep1451.pdf ) and read Eaton’s expert advice on how to cope with the creepy-crawly little vampires.