Gardeners and pet owners across Georgia are seeing more ticks this year, but confirmed cases of tick-borne diseases remain low.
“We’re seeing ticks earlier and in greater numbers this year – probably because of our warm winter,” said Suleima Salgado, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health. “Prevalence of our most common, the lone star tick, usually peaks in the summer and shouldn’t be here this early, but it is.”
Ticks are arachnids, not insects, and their closest relatives are spiders, scorpions and horseshoe crabs. They die off or become dormant in winter, but their numbers can increase rapidly during extended warm weather.
Although the creatures are widely reviled for their affinity to attach themselves to people, pets and wildlife, the potentially dangerous diseases they can carry occur in relatively low numbers in Georgia and South Carolina.
“Georgia had 58 confirmed Lyme disease cases in 2011 and 103 cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” Salgado said, adding that the East Central Health District, which includes Augusta and surrounding counties, yielded no cases of Lyme disease in 2011 and just three Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases.
Despite a bumper crop of ticks this year, Georgia has had no Lyme disease cases confirmed and just three cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, none of them in the East Central district, she said.
Health officials in South Carolina also say tick-borne illness is rare, even if ticks are plentiful and aggressive this year.
“Tens of thousands of bites occur every year, but just a small proportion result in any kind of disease transmission,” said Adam Myrick, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control.
During 2011, he said, 22 cases of Lyme disease were confirmed statewide, along with 13 cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
He was unsure whether any cases have been confirmed this year, but said hospitals, labs and medical facilities are required to disclose cases of either ailment.
“Both of those diseases are reportable to us within one week,” Myrick said.
Although Georgia’s tick-borne illness numbers are low, diagnosing those ailments and identifying trends can be challenging.
“Rocky Mountain spotted fever is the most common tick-borne disease we see,” Salgado said. “Lyme disease is pretty rare.”
Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose, both clinically by physicians and with the national case definition used by public health.
“Many cases report arthritis as the only symptom, which may be explained by other medical issues or ailments, but physicians report and treat the patient as if it were Lyme disease,” she said. “Only a small percentage of these report the traditional erythema migrans (bull’s-eye) rash; therefore, many of these cases may not truly be Lyme disease.”
Tick-borne surveillance is passive, meaning state officials investigate only cases that are reported to public health by physicians, hospitals and laboratories.
“Increased or decreased frequency of testing by physicians influence the number of cases that are reported,” she said.