Tick borne illnesses rising with tick populations

Deer ticks now common throughout state

Two decades ago, to find significant numbers of ticks you had to go the north woods in Wisconsin. Now, no matter where you live, you can likely find them in your community.

“There’s no spot left where we’ve gone to look for them and haven’t found them, including the southeast part of the state where they used to be quite rare,” said Dr. Susan Paskewitz, professor and chair of the entomology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The spread of ticks has also impacted the number of tick borne illnesses in Wisconsin. Two decades ago, Lyme disease cases in the state numbered between 400 and 500.

“Now it is 3,000 cases every year and the CDC, for Lyme disease would estimate that under estimates by quite a lot. It is probably closer to 30,000 cases in the state. So that is a large increase,” said Dr. Paskewitz.

Lyme disease is just one of several tick borne illnesses present in Wisconsin. Powassan virus is relatively rare, but it carries with it serious health risks, including death.

“It is a rare disease. We don’t see a lot of cases. Unfortunately it is a disease that can often have pretty sever impacts. People die as a result of Powassan infections and sometimes people have neurological damage,” said Dr. Paskewitz.

Powassan virus presents with flu-like symptoms, but will progress to confusion and difficulty speaking. To improve the outcome, it is very important to seek medical care at the onset of symptoms.

“It attacks the brain itself, causes inflammation and infection of the brain and because of that patients who have had this viral encephalitis can have significant neurologic problems, if they recover,” said Dr. Jeannina Smith, an infectious disease doctor with UW Health.

Because of the increase in Lyme disease cases and danger posed by Powassan virus, experts advise people to exercise diligence when in areas where ticks might be.

“I don’t think people need to be fearful of Powassan virus because it is so rare, but it is out there, and it is one more reason for people to do those careful tick checks at the end of the day, or try to reduce your contact with them to begin with.

When in areas where ticks may be present, it is recommended you wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to prevent ticks from getting on your skin. It is also recommended you use an insect repellent with DEET.