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Scientist, Health Director Warning About New Tick Species, Diseases, Exploding Populations



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A renowned tick research scientist and professor of epidemiology is joining Newtown Health District (NHD) Director Donna Culbert to reinforce advisories about expanding tick populations in the region, two new species that are taking hold, the diseases they can spread, and — most important — how to prevent bites.

In recent days as the wet and warmer winter gave way to sunny spring temperatures that surely drew people outdoors, The Newtown Bee reached out to Culbert and Goudarz Molaei, PhD, a research scientist, director of the Passive Tick Surveillance Program at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and associate clinical professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health.

Culbert said that as of April 19, her office had already seen the proportion of disease-laden ticks brought to her office increase from about 30% at a similar point last year, to more than 50% this year. (More ticks have been registered since April 19, but test results are not yet available.) By that date, the NHD had taken in 26 ticks for testing, which resulted in 14 coming back positive for at least one of three tickborne diseases carried by the growing number of species invading Newtown and Fairfield County.

At the same point in 2020, the NHD had taken in 38 ticks, with ten of them returned positive for disease(s). Each of the three previous years also had about 30% to 40% of submitted ticks coming back infected. Culbert also noted some specifics about what is happening currently in town.

“Right now, we are seeing just adult ticks, which are more likely to be infected because they have had more opportunity to become infected over a two-year life cycle,” the local health official explained. “But right now we’re entering nymph phase. And since adult ticks are easier to see and remove more quickly, you are less likely to be infected by one versus a nymph, which is so much smaller and hard to detect. That means the potential to contract one or more tickborne diseases from a nymph is actually greater.”

That is why Culbert wants Newtown residents to be extra-careful when they are doing anything outside, and when any of their pets come in from being outside.

“As we know, tickborne disease or TBD is always heavy on the minds of the Health District,” she said. “Similar to the region around us, ticks, tick bites, and TBD have impacted many, many Newtown and district residents. And with our newer and more current knowledge about recently identified ticks and the infections they can pass to us, it is just as important as ever to pay attention and take precautions.”

Disturbing Proliferations

Molaei picked up the conversation from there, telling The Newtown Bee the number of species, the number of ticks, and the number of diseases they can spread are all escalating in Connecticut, and especially in Fairfield County, at a disturbingly rapid pace. On one recent scientific field visit in lower Fairfield County, Molaei described stepping into an area where one species of tick was concentrated, and discovered he was immediately covered with so many ticks, it took more than a half an hour for him and an assistant to remove them all — nearly 200 of them.

Between that experience and the explosion of samples rolling into his offices for testing, Molaei concurred, “This year we are having above-average tick activity.”

“Last April, we had 436 tick specimens submitted that were taken off people. By May 1 of this year, we have received over 1,000 ticks,” he said. “This is why we are particularly concerned this year, and we’re pretty confident what we are seeing in our lab is reflecting what is happening in the field.”

In 2020, Molaei said about 50% of ticks were infected with either Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, or babesiosis. About 40% of those were infected with Lyme, 10% with babesiosis, and another 10% with anaplasmosis; more than 5% were infected with two of these diseases, and 2% with all three.

“Potentially every tick in Connecticut is [biologically] capable of carrying all three,” he said — although he only has data related to the black-legged or deer tick. The state has also long harbored common dog ticks, and more recently Lone Star ticks. The largest new proliferation is in lone star ticks, which have increased from about 0.2% several years ago, to more than 3% today.

“To make the matter worse, this 3% is coming from Fairfield County — so because they are coming from such a small region [proportionately] it is equal to between 10 and 20% or more that we are receiving for testing,” he said. “Today we are seeing this species in both Fairfield and New Haven county.”

Most recently however, and much to Molaei’s concern, are the presence of the Gulf Coast and Asian longhorned tick species. These newer breeds, he believes, were likely brought into the state by human visitors carrying them, or on their pets, from migrating animals, or because they were attached to and dropped by birds.

“I’m not talking about one or two — I’m talking about established populations. And with the Asian longhorned tick, the minute you step into an area that is populated, you are covered by them,” he said. “It doesn’t take more than five minutes for them to be all over you.”

Molaei said that about 30% of this species is carrying rickettsia, a disease similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The Asian longhorned ticks are also considered a possible vector for severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome virus (SFTSV), which is an emerging infectious disease in China.

Protect With BLAST

When it comes to prevention and not getting bitten, Molaei says residents should avoid working or recreating in areas where ticks breed or live.

“We used to say spring and summer was tick season, but now in Connecticut, every season is tick season. And now we’ve got six species in our state,” he said. “So if people are going out and hiking, they should stay close to the center of trails and do not venture into wooded areas. And once they come back, perform a tick check within two to three hours to greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting tickborne diseases.”

Along with this tip, Molaei also supports a program that the NHD and its director have been promoting in Newtown for well over a decade — the BLAST system.

“We continue to promote the BLAST message as the five simple things folks can do to prevent tick bites — bathe, look, avoid/apply, safeguard/spray, and treat,” Culbert said. “We want to emphasize this more as we want people to spend more time outdoors.”

Culbert said residents and visitors to Newtown alike are blessed here to have such wonderful places and opportunities to be outdoors.

“Whether it’s in our open backyards, or walking, hiking, playing, or picnicking, Newtown residents take advantage of all kinds of activities,” she said, adding, “But don’t forget about your pets, as they are at risk for tick bites, and they are also considered a risk factor for us as they can inadvertently bring ticks to us.”

As far as these two experts on ticks and tickborne diseases are concerned, Newtown residents will be well served by “keeping our guard up while enjoying our surroundings.”

To help Newtown residents and visitors be even more informed, The Newtown Bee is planning a noon-hour webcast on Facebook Live on Friday, May 21, featuring Dr Molaei and Culbert, along with possible special guests. The webcast will be available for later viewing on Facebook and YouTube.

For information about Dr Molaei and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, visit ct.gov/caes. For information about bringing ticks to the local health district for testing, call 203-270-4291.

Associate Editor John Voket can be reached at john@thebee.com.

Scientists have discovered the Gulf Coast tick population in southern Connecticut is growing at an alarming rate.
Three of the most common and potentially dangerous types of ticks one might find in Newtown include, from left, the black-legged or deer tick; the American dog or wood tick; and the lone star tick.
In recent years, the Asian longhorned tick species has taken hold in Fairfield County.
Dr Goudarz Molaei joins Newtown health District Director Donna Culbert to warn local residents about the significant growth of tick populations locally that bring with them a number of potentially devastating tickborne diseases. —photo courtesy Yale School of Public Health
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