The increased occurrence of Lyme disease in Massachusetts is so profound that the state Legislature considers it a public health crisis.
The disease is spread by deer ticks, which are commonly found in the local area, particularly in grassy fields and in beach dune grass. Terming its prevalence of near-epidemic proportions in the state, a report released last year found that in 2009 there were 4,045 cases reported in Massachusetts, a more than 64 percent increase since 2006. About 7.3 percent of those cases were in Essex County.
Some media have reported that 2012 may be a particularly bad year for ticks, given the mild winter temperatures and an anticipated dramatic decrease in the field mouse population. That decrease in mice would reportedly force ticks to venture farther to find prey.
As with most diseases, the best way to deal with it is to prevent the tick bite that could lead to problems. The advice of the state report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other Lyme disease experts, is to take precautions when in areas where ticks thrive, such as wooded or brush areas. Experts recommend wearing long, light-colored pants tucked into socks or boots and long-sleeved shirts when in such areas, all to protect the skin from exposure. In addition, ticks crawling on light-colored clothing can be more easily detected and removed before they bite.
The use of repellent containing DEET or permethrin has proven effective when used as instructed on the label, according to the report. Permethrin products should not be applied directly to skin, but on clothing and shoes. DEET products should not be used on infants under 2 months of age and should be used in concentrations of 30 percent or less on older children.
Staying on cleared paths when in tick-prone areas also helps to limit contact with vegetation where they may be. After spending time in an area likely to have ticks, check yourself, children and pets for ticks. Young ticks, or nymphs, and deer ticks are both no larger than a sesame seed. Both spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, but nymphs are aggressive feeders and so tiny that it can be difficult to see them on the body.
Ticks like places that are warm and moist, most commonly the backs of the knees, armpits, groin, scalp, back of the neck and behind the ears. Ticks attached to the body should be removed as soon as possible using fine-point tweezers.
Pet owners need to be cautious, for pets not only can get Lyme disease, but also carry infected ticks indoors where they can then spread the illness to their owners.
For more information, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at http://www.cdc.gov/Lyme/.