New Jersey's first 'tick blitz' census shows disease-carrying pest is spreading

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The May 10 "Tick Blitz," led by the Rutgers University–New Brunswick's Rutgers Center for Vector Biology, revealed new information about the distribution of longhorned ticks, lone star ticks and American dog ticks in New Jersey. JAMES OCCI / Rutgers Center for Vector Biology

For the first time ever, New Jersey launched a “tick blitz” census in all 21 counties, and experts say initial results show that lone star ticks, which can spread disease-causing pathogens, are more widespread than ever before.

The state drew national attention when an exotic Asian tick, Haemaphysalis longicornis, also known as the longhorned tick, was confirmed to be present in 2017. But newer information shows the tick has been in the state since 2013 and is present in four counties: Union, Hunterdon, Middlesex, and Mercer. In other countries, the longhorned tick has been a threat to animals and people. That has not been the case so far in New Jersey, but experts are watching.

“People should be focusing on native ticks that have pathogens and we know will bite people,” said Dina Fonseca, director of the Rutgers Center for Vector Biology and an entomologist. Fonseca said the data collected during the blitz, involving all 21 county mosquito-control agencies, were not fully analyzed, so she couldn’t say exactly how many ticks were found.

But, she said, it’s clear they are abundant. The May 10 count, led by Rutgers, did not focus on deer ticks, which are associated with Lyme disease and tend to be found in the woods. Rather, the blitz examined ticks found mostly in meadows.

Ticks are a problem all year around, but April through June is particularly dangerous because the small nymphs of the blacklegged tick come out. And after a long winter and rainy spring, lots of people are heading outdoors — and into potential tick contact.

The American dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. The lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum, can transmit ehrlichiosis and tularemia. Some of the symptoms of those diseases include skin rashes, tiredness, fever, chills, headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, joint pain, and dizziness. Symptoms usually occur in seven to 14 days after exposure.

“We have a lot of native ticks in New Jersey, and they transmit pathogens. And that’s also true in Pennsylvania, especially Eastern Pennsylvania,” Fonseca said.

The blitz, she said, was conducted because there were not enough data on the distribution of ticks, and most counties don’t have tick-control programs.

For example, the lone star tick — named after a star-shaped spot on its back — had previously been found in South Jersey. It was found in abundance in Middlesex County on May 10, indicating that it is moving both north and into more urbanized areas, which surprised Fonseca.

The lone star is an aggressive arachnid —  it will move relatively long distances to find hosts. Most ticks are content to sit and wait in a leaf for prey to pass by.

“It becomes a concern,” Fonseca said, “because we know these ticks bite people.”

She suggests hikers, bikers, walkers, and others venturing outdoors wear light-colored clothing, tuck their pants into their socks, use a tick repellent, and check themselves after being outdoors.

As for deer ticks, Fonseca said Lyme disease is still a huge issue in New Jersey, which is seeing about 3,500 cases a year. That seems to be stabilizing. However, she noted there has been an increase in Lyme disease in Eastern Pennsylvania, where it hadn’t been as common.

Data from Pennsylvania’s Lyme Disease Task Force show there were 3,001 cases reported in 2016 in the southeastern part of the commonwealth, the last year complete data are available. That was up from 2,463 in 2007, though the number of cases can vary dramatically year to year.

The results of  New Jersey’s blitz and findings from the tick examinations will be published later this year. The findings will provide Rutgers in New Brunswick, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state’s departments of agriculture and health, and county mosquito-control programs with information for future tick control programs.

The blitz was funded by a $20,000 USDA grant.