Two Collingwood residents, both self-professed wanderers, are starting to feel too familiar with a certain disease-carrying biting insect, and it’s prompted them to issue a warning to area hikers.
Since 2019, Luba and Chris Mifflin have discovered three blacklegged ticks embedded in their skin on three occasions and been on antibiotics twice as a precaution against Lyme disease. In another case, they discovered a tick on their dog.
All of the ticks were picked up while the couple and their dog were hiking in the woods near Forest Drive and the Georgian Trail.
Sure, they can still count their tick bites on one hand, but that’s four more ticks than you would have found in a place like Collingwood – or most of Simcoe County – a dozen years ago.
“I would say we have to be more vigilant,” said Luba. “We have been hikers and wanderers all our lives and never thought about it.”
The Mifflin’s have discovered eTick.ca, which is an online reporting tool that will identify the species of tick based on a photo submitted by someone who finds a tick on themselves, on their pets, or in nature. Chris Mifflin reported the most recent tick he found on May 8, 2020.
Identification is important because it’s the blacklegged tick, or deer tick, that can carry Lyme disease and transfer it to a human.
In 2019, when Luba found a tick on herself, her doctor sent the tick away for testing, and the results showed the tick was positive for Lyme disease.
That time, Luba had antibiotics from the doctor, but was told only to take them if a bullseye rash appeared. It did not, so she didn’t take them.
“We’re just not on top of it,” she said, noting Lyme disease is relatively new for the area. “It’s not to be taken lightly.”
The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit does have a department and program that looks at tick populations in the district. Typically health unit staff will take submissions of ticks found on people or animals in the region and send them for identification and testing for Lyme disease at a lab.
The health unit will also do something called tick dragging, which is a full day of staff combing an area to find out if ticks are breeding and thriving there, or if they are just there sporadically because they have fallen off a bird.
Brenda Armstrong is the manager of the Healthy Environments and Vector Borne Disease Programs for the health unit, and has noticed an uptick in the biting, disease-carrying insects in the region.
“Active surveillance tells us if it’s living and breathing and growing in the area, or whether it’s transitory,” said Armstrong. “Ticks that do not establish in an area are unlikely to contribute to the active Lyme disease transmission cycle.”
A tick requires a host – like a mouse or a deer – where it picks up Lyme disease-causing bacterias and then passes them onto humans and pets when they bite them too.
Last year there were 14 cases of Lyme disease in people reported in the Simcoe Muskoka region. There were 15 cases in 2018. This year the health unit has documented four blacklegged ticks positive for Lyme disease-causing bacteria, but has reported zero human cases of Lyme disease.
“It has been gradually increasing over time,” said Armstrong. “It’s over three times what we saw in 2014.”
The trend is also upward for Lyme disease cases in Ontario.
“We’re seeing an increase in the area that ticks have established habitat in Ontario and Simcoe Muskoka and it’s because of the changes that are happening in our climate,” she said.
And now COVID-19 has impacted all of the health unit’s regular programs, cancelling tick dragging for the year due to limited resources since nearly all public health staff have been redeployed to COVID-related tasks.
The health unit has also stopped accepting tick submissions. As a result, the health unit has had 51 ticks submitted this year. The total number of ticks submitted in 2019 was 380.
The health unit is instead pushing people to report ticks online through eTick.ca. The website shares its data with Public Health Ontario and with regional health units for mapping purposes. It also offers information to the public.
And it’s so much faster than the old way.
Armstrong said it would often take six to eight weeks for the public health labs to identify a tick and several months to test whether it had Lyme disease-causing bacteria. She reports eTick.ca will have a tick identified within 24 hours.
Luba said the times she and Chris have used eTick.ca to report a tick they found, they’ve had an identification of the type of tick within a few hours.
However, eTick.ca can’t determine from a photo if a tick carries Lyme disease-causing bacteria. That still has to be tested in a lab, and the test still takes months.
Any physician can submit a tick to the public health labs to be tested for Lyme disease.
“People should be speaking with a physician if they find a tick attached and it’s a blacklegged tick and it’s attached for more than 24 hours,” said Armstrong. “They should be discussing the risk and they should not be waiting for Lyme disease testing of that tick.”
In the world of veterinary medicine, Lyme disease screening is part of annual tests.
Dr. Jacquie Pankatz, owner of Mountain Vista Veterinary Hospital in Collingwood, has also observed a significant increase, and change, in blacklegged ticks in the area.
“We have seen more ticks on pets than ever before,” said Pankatz, who has been a vet in Collingwood for more than 23 years. “Ten-to-fifteen years ago, we rarely saw a tick on our pets, but now this is a routine occurrence.”
The veteran veterinarian has also noticed the beginning and end lines of the once defined tick season are now blurred.
“Ticks are a concern all year round as we know they can survive winter and can emerge on days that reach over 4 Celsius,” she said. “It appears that our weather patterns are changing, therefore, the environment is becoming more favourable for tick infestation.”
She said the blacklegged tick is most common, and their bite can transmit Lyme disease to dogs.
“It is the same disease as seen in humans. However, unlike humans, we have a robust annual screening program through blood testing that can help us diagnose and treat the disease before it can damage internal organs,” said Pankatz.
The veterinary world has developed tick preventative medication, and Pankatz said she now recommends it be administered to pets all year round.
Tick prevention in the human world is a little more work than squeezing a serum on your neck or taking a pill once a month.
Avoiding tick-prone areas is not ideal. Firstly because of the joy of hiking and exploring nature, and secondly because ticks can be anywhere. They will hitch a ride on a bird and drop in strange places.
“Know that ticks are everywhere,” said Armstrong, adding she advocates strongly for getting outdoors and enjoying what nature has to offer. “We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place with so much green space for us to use. But you should take precautions.”
Those precautions can include bug spray with DEET or other tick repellents, wearing long sleeves and long pants, and having a shower and checking yourself after you have been outdoors.
If you find a tick, snap a photo and submit it to eTick.ca to identify it. If it is a blacklegged tick, consult your healthcare provider.
Pankatz said if you find a tick on a pet, you should follow the same rules.
“Perhaps the biggest consideration when a tick is detected on your pet, is that the human has likely been in the same environment,” she said. “So humans also need to be diligent in protecting themselves when walking in these regions.”
The Mifflins also urge diligence for everyone, even if it seems like ticks aren’t a problem in your area.
“They are prevalent,” said Luba.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Lyme disease, if left untreated, can spread to other parts of your body for years after infection, causing arthritis and nervous system problems. Other complications from the disease include neurological symptoms, paralysis, cognitive defects and heart rhythm irregularities.
If you are bitten by a tick, you should remove the tick as soon as possible, according to the health unit. Use tweezers to grab and pull the tick from as close to your skin as possible. Avoid squeezing the tick's abdomen. Clean the bite with rubbing alcohol and/or soap and water.
Keep the tick in a container in the refrigerator and keep a note of the location on your body and the date you were bitten in case you need medical attention later.
The health unit offers these tips for protecting yourself from ticks:
Wear light-coloured clothing (which makes it easier to spot ticks) and tucking pants into socks and shirts into pants
Use insect repellent such as DEET or Icaridin, following manufacturer's recommendations
When you return from being outdoors:
do a full body check of yourself, children, and pets; if you find a tick, remove it immediately; and
shower or bath within two hours to check private areas and wash away any loose ticks that may be on your body or in your hair.
If you find a tick attached to the skin, remove it right away. An infected tick has to be attached for more than 24 hours before the bacteria that causes Lyme disease can be transmitted. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull it straight away.
For more information on protecting yourself and your family from ticks and Lyme disease, see the health unit’s website at www.simcoemuskokahealth.org, or call Health Connection at 705-721-7520 or 1-877-721-7520 weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.