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EXPLAINED: Ticks – the dangerous beasties lurking in our gardens, play parks, woods and hills!

By Neil MacPhail

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A tick,
A tick,

Forget midges, the insect to fear is the tick, as they can spread a serious disease the effects of which can last for years.

What is a tick - It is a tiny spider-like creatures found in woodland and moorland areas. They suck blood from birds and mammals, including humans, as part of its life cycle - but some carry a bacterium that can cause illness.

What is the illness -

It is Lyme disease. In the early 1970s a group of children and adults in Lyme, Connecticut, USA, suffered puzzling and debilitating health issues with swollen knees, paralysis, skin rashes, headaches, and severe chronic fatigue, often lasting for years.

Some forms of Lyme disease can cause a potentially dangerous allergy to red meat called Alpha-gal Syndrome (AGS) causing the risk of anaphylactic shock, and deer stalkers in parts of the Highlands have contracted this condition after being bitten by ticks with Alph-gal in their saliva.

How was the tick connection made -

In 1981 scientist Willy Burgdorfer was studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, also caused by a tick bite, but began to study Lyme disease also and found the connection between the illness and ticks that had been sucking deer blood.

He discovered that a bacterium called a spirochete, carried by ticks, was causing Lyme. Dr Burgdorfer was honoured for his discovery in 1982 by having the bacterium named spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi.

How do ticks attack us -

Ticks are sneaky. They can be as small as a poppy seed, or as large as a baked bean after gorging on blood.

Ticks go hunting blood by "questing". It waits on a blade of grass, bracken or heather for a human or animal to brush past it, and transfers onto the host. It then crawls to find a warm spot to embed itself into.

They inject a local anaesthetic which means that their bite is painless and can go undetected. They often attach themselves to the hairline, armpit, or groin areas of the body.

Ticks start life in a small way.
Ticks start life in a small way.

Does everyone bitten become ill -

No, and Lyme disease is usually easier to treat the earlier it's diagnosed. Usually antibiotics are administered to the patient.

  • Ticks that may cause Lyme disease are found all over the UK
  • High-risk areas include grassy and wooded areas in southern England and the Scottish Highlands
  • To reduce the risk of being bitten, cover your skin, tuck your trousers into your socks, use insect repellent and stick to paths
  • If you are bitten, remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers or a tick-removal tool found in chemists.
  • Resist scratching them off as you risk squeezing infected blood into the skin puncture
  • Clean the bite with antiseptic or soap and water
  • The risk of getting ill is low as only about 10 per cent of ticks are infected with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease it is estimated
  • You don't need to do anything else unless you become unwell
  • You should go to your GP if you've been bitten by a tick or visited an area in the past month where infected ticks are found and you get flu-like symptoms or a circular red rash
  • This rash does not always appear however
  • Symptoms can include feeling hot and shivery, headaches, aching muscles or feeling sick
Tick warning sign in Lochardil pharmacy window.
Tick warning sign in Lochardil pharmacy window.

Is Lyme disease taken seriously by the medical world -

Very much so. There are many research and support groups, and in May a world "tick talk" conference on Lyme disease was held at the Centre for Health Sciences, Inverness.

NorthTick is a joint project co-funded by the European Union and the North Sea Region programme.

It is a transnational, multidisciplinary project with 11 beneficiaries from seven different countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Belgium, UK and the Netherlands.)

What does NorthTick do -

It aims to meet the challenges associated with tick and tick-borne diseases by enhancing cooperation between academic institutions, national/regional health authorities, patient organisations and industry and policy makers to develop and exchange knowledge on how to curb the rise in tick-borne infections and the associated burden on society.

Oxford University has also started research "using shotgun meta-genomic sequencing and new culture approaches to identify pathogens" and to examine the effect of long term antibiotic use on chronic sufferers.

In 2019 an app using space technology to track ticks was launched in the Highlands in a bid to prevent Lyme disease, with funding from the European and UK space agencies.

Data is monitored by the Scottish Lyme Disease and Tick-borne Infections Reference Laboratory in Inverness,

One of many Lyme disease sufferers in the north is Councillor Morven-May MacCallum -

Morven-May MacCallum
Morven-May MacCallum

Ms MacCallum, from the Black Isle is well known for her work raising awareness of Lyme disease. In 2018 she published a debut novel, Finding Joy, based on her 17-year battle with the disease after it hit her when only 14.

She attended the launch of the app and told how the disease had left her bedridden for eight years.

Ms MacCallum said: "Ticks and Lyme disease is a huge issue and one that keeps on growing. I sadly have had Lyme disease for a long time and I do a lot of work on Lyme disease awareness, ever since publishing my novel about Lyme.

“Lyme disease is an illness of unquestionable power and the damage it’s had on my life and for thousands like me is unmeasurable.

“It’s wonderful to see professionals from across different areas of expertise come together to help advance our knowledge of this disease and, in the process, hopefully find the answers which are so desperately needed.”

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