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Bites from blacklegged ticks have led to record numbers of tick-borne disease in Minnesota

Tom Grier doesn't actually know when he contracted Lyme Disease. He suspects it was in the late 1970s, when he was a young man attending medical school in Duluth and training for marathons, often by running through wooded areas.

He remembers contracting shingles, and getting some bizarre blood smear results. However, the shingles went away and he thought no more about it.

A little over 10 years later, in 1990, he was misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"I was extremely fatigued, depressed, had heart palpitations, muscle aches, extreme night sweats -- my vision had shrunk to about the size of a baseball and there was enormous pressure in my head," said Grier, who said he was handicapped as a result of the disease.

It would be two years before doctors figured out that Grier actually had Lyme Disease and another six years before he was well enough to drive again.

Today doctors are more aware of tick-borne diseases -- which also include human anaplasmosis (HA) and babesiosis, among others -- and they can treat them, especially when caught in the early stages of the disease. However, Grier said, medical science is still working to gain a greater understanding of how these diseases work.

Grier is very active with the Duluth/ Superior Lyme Disease Support Group.

"We've seen hundreds of people come through group," Grier said. "Most people get better and never come back. ... But there are a lot of people who still feel sick, just with different symptoms, after they're treated."

"I'm 1,000 percent better than I was, but I'm still not well," he said.

The same blacklegged tick -- aka a deer tick or bear tick -- can carry all three of the previously mentioned diseases.

These black-legged ticks -- and the diseases they carry -- are on the rise in the state.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), approximately one-third of blacklegged ticks tested during recent years in Minnesota were positive for these disease-causing organisms.

"While levels of infection in blacklegged ticks can vary by time or place, these levels were consistently high," said Melissa Kemperman, an epidemiologist specializing in tick-transmitted diseases at MDH. "Overall, about one out of every three adult blacklegged ticks was positive for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. In many parts of Minnesota, this means that there is a good chance that any blacklegged tick you encounter is carrying the Lyme disease bacteria."

Nymphs, the immature stage of tick, were also tested. Just over 10 percent of nymphal blacklegged ticks were positive for the Lyme disease bacteria. Although fewer nymphs than adults were positive for the Lyme disease bacteria, their small size makes them more dangerous. "Nymphs are tiny -- about the size of a poppy seed," Kemperman said. "Because of this, they are very difficult to notice, and many people don't notice that an attached nymph is feeding on them."

The parts of the state where blacklegged ticks are very common include areas with a lot of wooded or brushy areas, like south St. Louis County, Carlton County and Pine County. These ticks like leaf litter, so they're not as fond of conifer forests, Kemperman said, although she added that they are seeing more black-legged ticks further up the North Shore.

People who develop signs or symptoms of a tick-related illness after spending time in blacklegged tick habitat should see a physician right away, even if they don't remember getting a tick bite.

Peak time for black-legged ticks is mid-May through mid-July, and again in the fall.

Blacklegged ticks need to be attached for 24 to 48 hours to transmit Lyme disease bacteria and 12 to 24 hours to transmit HA bacteria.

Lyme disease, HA, and babesiosis are treatable, but early diagnosis and treatment are important in preventing severe illness. Some people can develop two or more diseases from the same tick bite.

Since 2004, an average of about 1,000 cases of Lyme disease has been reported to MDH each year. That's twice the average annual numbers from 1999 to 2003. Numbers of HA and babesiosis cases are smaller but also have risen dramatically, to about 300 HA and 25 babesiosis cases in each of the last two years, said Kemperman.

Symptoms of HA and babesiosis include a high fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches. These symptoms appear approximately one to three weeks after the tick bite for HA and one to six weeks or more after the tick bite for babesiosis.

Signs and symptoms of Lyme disease can include an expanding rash, fever, headache, chills, muscle pain, joint pain, and fatigue. The rash, one of the earliest symptoms, typically appears between 3 and 30 days after an infectious tick bite.

Untreated Lyme disease can develop into joint swelling, nervous system problems, or heart problems.

Unfortunately, not everyone with Lyme disease develops the trademark bullseye-shaped rash. Nor do they all suffer the same symptoms, in a predictable order.

"It's a very individual disease," Grier said.

The Lyme's support group meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month at St. Luke's Hospital, East Clinic Building, Room 329. Call 728-3914 for more.

If you do get a tick, don't panic

Simply remove it with a pair of tweezers behind the head, not the body.

Squeezing the body could push fluids back into your body, like a syringe. Tom Grier, of the Duluth/Superior Lyme Disease Support Group, advises people who have been bitten to save the tick in a jar with a drop of water and seek treatment promptly, without waiting to see if symptoms develop.

"I'm a big believer in treating tick bites (preventively)," he said, "because I've seen the results when you don't seek treatment, the horror stories."

After removing the tick, use an antiseptic on the bite.

Also, avoid folk remedies (and e-mail cures) like Vaseline, nail polish remover or burning matches -- they are not a safe or effective way to remove ticks.

Here are some tips to prevent tick bites:

Use repellent, especially on your lower legs

When spending time in wooded or brushy areas, it is crucial to use tick

repellents containing permethrin. Permethrin-based products, which are only applied to clothing, are highly effective and can last through several washings. Since ticks climb up from the ground, focus repellent use below the knees. Repellents containing up to 30 percent DEET can be used on the skin or clothing. Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding the hands, eyes, and mouth.

Wear light colored pants

Wear long pants and light-colored clothing (so you can easily see the ticks trying to wander up your leg) and walk in the center of trails. Tuck pants into your socks if you're heading into wooded areas.

Do a tick check

After returning from the woods, check your body carefully for ticks and promptly remove any that are found. Look carefully in the hair, under the arms, in and around the ears, inside belly button, in back of the knees, under the arms, between the legs and where your waistband sits.

Also throw your clothes and sleeping bags into the dryer on hot for at least 20 minutes -- this should kill any other ticks.

Create an anti-tick yard

Modify your landscape to create Tick-Safe Zones. To do this, keep play areas and playground equipment away from shrubs, bushes, and other vegetation. Also, regularly remove leaf litter and clear tall grasses and brush around homes, and place wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to keep ticks away from recreational areas.

Provide a vegetation-free play area. Keep play areas and playground equipment away from away from shrubs, bushes, and other vegetation.

Use a chemical control agent. Effective tick control chemicals are available for use by the homeowner, or they can be applied by a professional pest control expert, and even limited applications can greatly reduce the number of ticks. A single springtime application of acaricide can reduce the population of ticks that cause Lyme disease by 68-100%.

Discourage deer. Removing plants that attract deer and constructing physical barriers may help discourage deer from entering your yard and bringing ticks with them.

The Minnesota Department of Health contributed greatly to this article.