The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Nature's bloodsuckers can thrive through tornadoes, floods and the sticky heat that is so grueling to humans.

When a tornado raked a wooded area near Okemah on May 10, it apparently picked up ticks crouched on the bark and leaves and dropped them when the twister hit a cattleman's vacant homestead house.

"It's a special circumstance. It just doesn't happen a lot," said Justin Talley, Oklahoma State University extension livestock entomologist. The owner asked Talley for advice on the sudden tick infestation.

"As soon as I walked out there, I could see ticks walking across the sidewalk," Talley said.

The hungry, eight-legged vampires were on the move because they detected the vibrations and carbon dioxide the men produced.

Ticks don't have to ride in on the nearest tornado. A good wind, people, and deer carry the resilient animals to new areas, where they adapt and can lay 5,000 or more eggs

"Ticks are well-designed to survive," said Katherine Kocan, a tick researcher and professor at OSU.

Two ticks are particularly troublesome.

The Lone Star tick — the females have a white dot or star on their backs — wasn't a significant disease-causing pest a couple of decades ago when Kocan began studying the species. But now the hardy insects are the nation's top tick disease-causing organism responsible for spreading seven diseases, including the dangerous ehrlichiosis and four others that affect humans.

Ehrlichiosis accounted for 146 cases and one death in Oklahoma last year.

The American dog tick causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever in humans. The state is consistently one of the top-two states in Rocky Mountain spotted fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oklahoma had 342 reports of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in 2009, including one death, and 13 cases have been reported to the state Health Department this year. Cases could be higher because surveillance laboratory reports may not always get to the health department, said Laurence Burnsed, director of Communicable Disease Division.

Ticks normally take a year to go from eggs to adults, but, "in conditions like we're having now, with the high humidity and significant heat, they can complete their life cycle in three to four months," Talley said.

Ticks like roses, ornamental plants and big oak or pecan trees nearly as much as humans do. The plants provide shade and set up an inviting microenvironment that evens out the temperatures.

Humans can help spoil ticks' easy living by eliminating weeds and mowing. Hikers or bikers should stay in the center of trails to avoid grass and brush. When going outdoors, wear light colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and a tick repellent containing DEET.

After coming in from outside, check for ticks around waistbands, socks, armpits and groin areas, Burnsed said.

"The sooner you get them pulled off, the lower the risk," Burnsed said.

If you find a tick embedded in your skin, mark the date on the calendar, Kocan said. If your health changes in about two weeks, that notation will help the doctor determine if the tick bite is the cause.

Tick-borne diseases produce symptoms such as fever, headache (often severe), body aches, vomiting, abdominal pain, fatigue and sometimes a rash and swelling of the lymph nodes in the tick bite area.

Though there is no vaccine, tick-borne diseases often can be treated successfully with early diagnosis and antibiotics, Burnsed said.


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