Get Ready for Another Summer of Out-of-Control Ticks

A person removes a tick from a dog.
A person removes a tick from a dog.
Photo: JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN (AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. tick problem is not getting any better. And, unfortunately, we’re doing a dreadful job at tracking their movements, let alone keeping them in check, according to a new study out Wednesday.

Advertisement

The eight-legged tick is America’s most dangerous pest bug, based on the amount of human illness it causes every year. An estimated 300,000 people in the U.S. catch tickborne diseases annually, largely from the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and is spread through a female tick’s bloodsucking bite.

Frustratingly, a warmer climate has expanded the range of species like the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick. Whereas Lyme was once found mostly in parts of the Northeast, it’s now regularly showing up in half the country and may even have reached all of the continental U.S. in small numbers. If that isn’t bad enough, we’re still discovering new tickborne diseases and troublesome, invasive new tick species.

Advertisement

Despite these trends, though, bug scientists have warned for some time that officials are failing at measuring and controlling tick populations. This new paper, published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, seems to confirm that worry.

The authors surveyed over 140 professionals working in vector control, scattered across the country in various state, county, and local public health agencies. Among other things, they were asked about the state of their own agency’s tick-related programs, as well as their state or county’s efforts.

About two-thirds reported that their offices were involved in passive tick surveillance, such as collecting samples sent in from the public. But less than half said that they conducted any routine active surveillance, like actually going to possible tick hotspots in the woods and collecting them there. A quarter also said that their jurisdictions regularly conducted or supported the testing of tickborne germs from these samples. And most damning, only 12 percent of professionals willing to comment said they were involved in any tick control efforts, such as using feeding stations that apply pesticides to deer or other wildlife that ticks target.

Advertisement

“Ticks are responsible for the majority of our vector-borne illnesses in the U.S., and our programming does not adequately meet the need in its current form, for both surveillance and control,” said lead author Emily Mader, program manager at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases at Cornell University, in a statement released by the Entomological Society of America.

Funding was the most common reason provided for these gaps in surveillance and control, voiced by a majority of people surveyed. There is some hope that things will change there in the near future. Last winter, the federal government passed the Kay Hagan Tick Act, named after the former North Carolina senator who died in October 2019 from complications of the tickborne Powassan virus she caught three years earlier. It’s set to provide some $150 million to tick-related public health programs, including the Vector-Borne Disease Regional Centers of Excellence run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advertisement

Given that the U.S. is likely to have warmer weather throughout longer periods of the year for the foreseeable future, it’s almost certain that disease-causing ticks will continue to surge without more resources to effectively contain them.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

These alien-looking avians are tick-eating MACHINES. I live in a rural area and had a lot of trouble with ticks. Like, pulling dozens off of myself and my pets every single day. As many of you know, “phantom ticks” then become an issue, where you start feeling creepy crawlies that aren’t even there. I heard that guinea fowl (pictured) were an effective means of controlling tick populations so I got a few. They mainly hang out with the chickens, and need next to no care and feeding during the warm months. They range around the property eating ticks by the hundreds.

And it actually works.  I only ever find ticks on myself when I go into thickly-wooded areas (they don’t like those).  The only downside to these guys is that they are LOUD.  And their “song” sounds like metal scraping on metal and/or shrieking.  And they do it from about 15 minutes before sun-up until well after sundown.  Much like a person that lives near an airport or the train tracks, I just don’t hear it anymore.