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Philly Inquirer: Lyme disease/tick life cycle

  • Subject: [cg] Philly Inquirer: Lyme disease/tick life cycle
  • From: Alliums garlicgrower@earthlink.net
  • Date: Mon, 09 Jun 2003 10:45:49 -0400

Hi, Folks!

Incredibly easy to read and understand article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer on the interplay between Lyme disease and the tick/human/deer cycle that keeps the disease among us! :-(

Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden

A mission of
St. John's United Church of Christ, 315 Gay Street, Phoenixville, PA  19460


Learn the facts of Lyme disease

Ticks and deer play misunderstood roles in the spread of the bacteria to humans.
By Jim Occi

I know this sounds as if I'm an apologist for criminal behavior, but here goes:

The tick that transmits the Lyme disease bacterium is misunderstood.

True, it's a blood-sucking parasite and sex fiend that wantonly spreads a microbe that can bring illness and even death to humans. But disgusting behavior aside, the tick has been wrongly stereotyped by both sides in the deer debate in suburbia.
Hunters call this arachnid the deer tick and suggest that the increase in Lyme disease is directly attributable to the growing deer population. The deer have brought these parasites right to our doorsteps, the hunters say, where it's only a short walk to our arms and legs.

Animal-rights activists snarl at the mention of the term deer tick. They say the ticks' prey is not the white-tailed deer but rather the white-footed mouse, and to suggest that deer play a role in the spread of Lyme disease borders on slander.
Let's set things straight: You're both wrong. And you're both right. So would you please put aside your taste for venison or your love for Bambi for a moment and consider the facts?

Let's start with the deer tick, which, by the way, is a legitimate term. It is born free of the Lyme bacterium. Many, however, may pick it up in their larval stage by feeding off the blood of a white-footed mouse that carries the bacterium. So we have Fact No. 1: In the vast majority of cases, the bacterium originates in the white-footed mouse.
Ticks partake in only one feeding in each stage of their life cycle. When a larval tick has pigged out on the mouse, it will fall off, retreat to a moist area, and reemerge in late spring or early summer in the nymph stage.
So now we're in the period during which humans are most likely to contract Lyme disease. Why? Because in the vast majority of cases, the Lyme bacterium is transmitted by the nymph tick during its one seasonal feeding. Its target might be a mouse or other rodent, or it might choose you or me for its meal. In only rare cases would it pick a deer; that comes later in life.

Deer ticks are as brilliant as they are devious. In the forthcoming warm, moist days, they'll perch in the low-lying vegetation of our yards, alert to rustling vibration, the scent of carbon dioxide, and the sensation of warmth - all signs of a passing human. Using their forearm hooks, they'll climb aboard, then seek out a warm spot on our bodies, where they'll find ample supply of red blood cells. As they begin to fill themselves with nutrient-rich blood, they make space in their systems by expelling water, which they do through their saliva, thus transmitting the Lyme bacteria into their unsuspecting victims.

Unsuspecting is the key word here. These pinhead-size proletarians are able to prevent our blood from clotting and our skin bite from itching or becoming painful. All this allows them to keep feeding, unnoticed, for days.

That is why it's essential to wear light clothing that covers your arms and legs when you spend extended periods near vegetated areas in the summer. It's also important to closely check your clothing - and your body - for any sign of ticks once you're back inside. Keep in mind that when you remove the nymph tick within one or two days of the bite, you're less likely to contract Lyme disease.

Once the nymph tick is sated, its feeding is done for that cycle, and it's back to the leaf litter. Come fall, the nymph graduates to adulthood, becoming a boy or girl and discovering the joys of sex.

About this time, the deer-mating season is under way, which means bucks and does are also out there looking for a good time. So if you're a deer tick, where's the best spot for a romantic getaway? The flesh of a deer.

In fact, deer provide both the bedroom and round-the-clock room service. While boy and girl mate, girl feeds off the deer blood to nourish her developing eggs.

After lovemaking that can last a week, the guy may drop dead or go off to find a new girlfriend. The female tick goes back to the leaf litter and lays 1,000 to 3,000 eggs, which hatch in the summer, and the cycle starts anew.

So we have Fact No. 2: The tick is not falling off the deer and onto you; the one seasonal feeding is over with the mating on the deer.

And Fact No. 3: Without a plentiful deer population, Mr. and Ms. Tick would lose their favorite venue for procreation, which would have severe implications for the future of their species.
The verdict: The white-tailed deer and white-footed mouse are unwitting coconspirators with the deer tick in the transmission of Lyme disease to humans.

Jim Occi is a microbiologist whose master's thesis dealt with deer ticks infected with the Lyme disease bacterium. He lives in Union County, N.J.

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