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Really ticked: NH beset by flourishing population

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 31. 2014 7:34PM
A deer tick is not much bigger than the tip of a pencil. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

5/29/14-A deer tick is not much bigger than the tip of a pencil. DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER

New Hampshire residents endured a long, harsh winter, but experts say the frigid temperatures and steady snowfall had little effect on the state's tick population.

They also warn it's too early to tell if the recent cool, wet weather pattern will cause an onslaught of mosquitoes and black flies in the coming weeks.

An adult female black-legged tick.Alan Eaton, UNH Cooperative Extension

"It's been a great winter for ticks, not so great for us," said Alan Eaton, an entomologist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, who reports already encountering a large number of ticks during his fieldwork this spring. "They seem pretty abundant this year. Ticks have been increasing in number. It's a pretty grim picture - unless you like ticks."

Pest control experts say 2014 is already looking like it will be one of their busiest years in terms of calls for service.

"I would say about 20 percent of our calls are for ticks," said Sarah MacGregor, president of Dragon Mosquito Control in Stratham, which provides mosquito and pest control for municipalities and homeowners across southern New Hampshire and the Seacoast region. "That's up over previous years. Ticks are definitely what everyone seems to be talking about right now. I've already pulled two off myself this spring. It's crazy."

Eaton said a good snow cover this winter allowed ticks to survive well during the cold months.

"It snowed early, and the snow stuck around until late in the spring," said Eaton. "Ticks don't survive very well when it's dry, so that snow cover gave them a nice protective layer, almost like a blanket, to hang out under until spring. The cold doesn't really affect them."

Eaton said the size of the state's tick population this spring and summer will depend on rainfall patterns. Periods of drought will limit tick activity and population growth.

A potential rise in the tick population has state health officials concerned over the possible spread of Lyme disease.

According to the most recent national data, from 2012, New Hampshire reported the highest rate of Lyme disease in the U.S. - 75.9 confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

The state's Department of Health and Human Services reported on May 20 that 1,689 cases of Lyme disease were identified in the state in 2013, the highest number over the past five years by 74 cases.

The highest rates of the disease were in Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford counties.

"Unfortunately, Lyme disease remains common in New Hampshire," said New Hampshire Public Health Director Dr. José Montero. "We cannot afford to let our guard down."

Lyme risk is high from mid-May through mid-July because young tick nymphs are active, and roughly the size of the head of a pin.

"They are hard to spot," said Eaton.

During tick season, health officials are asking residents and visitors to the state to perform frequent tick checks and wear appropriate clothing while outdoors.

Eaton said frequently checking for ticks, avoiding thick brush and tall grass, tucking one's pant legs into socks and applying repellents to clothing all help to significantly reduce the chance of picking up the parasites.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium, and passed to humans through the bite of an infected tick. The primary carrier is the black-legged tick, commonly known as a deer tick. After an infected adult tick bites a host, it takes a minimum of 30 hours to pass on the disease. For nymph ticks, the time frame is reduced to 24 hours.

Symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and often a skin rash that starts out round and looks like a bulls-eye.

Eaton said it's still too early to know what the state's mosquito and black fly population will look like.

"It depends on the weather pattern," said Eaton. "If we get some warmer weather, followed by a few inches of rain, then warm weather, and more rain, then the numbers could explode."

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