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It's tick season: Becker County on high risk list for Lyme disease

"I'd like to check you for ticks," is more than a line in a popular Brad Paisley song. It's also good practice for residents of eastern Becker County.

Becker County was added to the list of Minnesota counties with a high risk of Lyme disease in 2004.

"That's when we started noticing more cases," said Melissa Kemperman, an epidemiologist who specializes in tick and mosquito transmitted diseases for the Minnesota Department of Health. The infection is spread by bites from disease-carrying deer ticks.

Kemperman said there's no set formula for adding a location to the high-risk map. The MDH looks at cases, population, and exposure for residents and tourists in the locations. Becker County reported 19 cases of Lyme disease in 2004, 12 cases in 2005 and nine cases in 2006.

Kemperman said the department is testing ticks throughout the state. Fifty to 60 percent of ticks test positive as carriers for Lyme disease.

Infection rates are getting higher in areas north and west of the deer tick's traditional areas, said Kemperman. The usual territory for deer ticks is in central and southeastern Minnesota. The creepy, crawly little ticks thrive in the woody, brushy countryside of eastern Becker County.

Transmission of diseases

Not all deer tick bites transmit Lyme disease. The deer tick has to be attached for 1-2 days, take a blood meal, be carrying the bacteria, and the person has to develop symptoms of the disease. "Not everyone has an illness response," said Kemperman.

"People shouldn't panic if they see a tick on themselves," she said, "but they should try to remove it as quickly as possible."

The season for deer ticks runs from April to October with an increased risk mid-May to mid-July, according to a press release from the MDH.

Not just Lyme disease

Two other diseases transmitted by deer ticks are also on the rise. The MDH said 177 cases of human anaplasmosis were reported in 2006 and it was a record year for babesiosis, with 18 reported cases. Kemperman said there's been in an increase in these diseases statewide, not necessarily in Becker County.

Symptoms of diseases

All three diseases transmitted by the deer tick have similar symptoms. Common symptoms include muscle aches, headaches, and fever.

Lyme disease symptoms appear 3 to 30 days after infection and also include a bulls-eye rash, joint pain, and chills. Not all infected people develop the rash. Lyme disease can develop at the same time as human anaplasmosis or babesiosis.

Human anasplasmosis symptoms appear one to three weeks after a bite. The symptoms are similar to Lyme disease, including chills, but the fever onset is sudden and high (over 102 degrees) and the headache is severe.

HA is more dangerous for the elderly but people of all ages become infected. Around 40 percent of those with HA in 2006 were hospitalized. If left untreated, the disease can cause organ failure and death.

Babesiosis symptoms usually appear one to six weeks after a bite, but may take longer. These include the high fever, muscle aches, loss of appetite, fatigue and headache.

Most people infected with it have mild to no symptoms, but the disease can be severe for those with compromised immune systems. There were three reported cases in Minnesota that resulted in death in the past five years.

The MDH said if you develop signs of a tick-related illness you should seek medical attention immediately.

Minimize risk of infection

The best step to minimizing infection is prevention, according to the MDH. Deer ticks live in woody, brushy areas. The MDH offers tips to help for those living in high-risk areas or visiting those areas.

Keep away from tick habitats during peak season. If you do travel in the woods, stay in the middle of the trail. Ticks are transferred to humans or animals through contact with brush or grass in wooded areas.

Use a good bug spray--the best for avoiding ticks are DEET-based or contain permethrin. Wear long-sleeved shirts and tuck your pants into your socks to prevent ticks from getting under your clothing. Lighter-colored clothing makes it easier to spot a tick and remove it.

If you live in a high-risk area, you can work to keep your yard free of ticks by eliminating their habitat. Keep your grass short, remove leaves and brush from the edges of your lawn, and put play equipment for children in sunny, dry areas.

Another way to minimize your risk of infection is to take care of your pets. Get some tick repellent for Fido or Fluffy, check the animals before letting them in the house, and look into a Lyme disease vaccine for dogs.

Proper tick removal

If you find an attached tick, don't panic! The MDH said to use tweezers to grasp the tick by its head, close to the skin, and gently and slowly pull the tick out. Don't squeeze the tick and clean the bite with an antiseptic.

This is the most effective method of tick removal. The MDH said other methods, such as nail polish remover and burning matches, are not effective or safe and prompt removal is very important.