Jonathan Rayner works at the University of South Alabama as the Director of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases. Jonathan has studied ticks since back in 2018. He and his colleagues have a tick tracking program where people can send in ticks by mail to the lab so that tick borne diseases may be identified and monitored throughout the state.
With summer being high tick season, a reminder to stay diligent about checking yourself (and your children and pets) for ticks after outdoor summer activities is warranted.
Ticks in Alabama
Alabama does not have any official surveillance program for ticks, and it’s physically impossible to count the tick population in the state. However, by monitoring tick-borne illnesses, we can have a better idea of the population.
In Alabama, there are many different kind of ticks. But, only 4 spieces are commonly known to transmit diseases to humans. These are the American dog tick, the Gulf Coast tick, the black-legged tick, and the lone star tick. The Gulf Coast tick has been moving further north in the last few years, and it is one of the major carriers of illness, primarily spotted fever rickettsioisis.
Tick-borne illnesses, including this one, increased prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, they have shown to be steadily increasing over the last 20 years. In 2000, there were just 14 documented cases of spotted fever rickettsiosis in Alabama. In 2018, there were 673 reported cases. These case numbers then decreased in 2019 and 2020. In 2020, there were just 90 documented cases of the illness. Researchers suspect this drop is not simply a decrease in cases, but an avoidance of medical care during COVID-19, leading to undiagnosed cases, as well as a narrowing of the definition of a “case” by the medical field.
The good news is, spotted fever rickettsiosis is the most common tick-borne illness in Alabama, and it can usually be treated with just a common antibiotic. It is very rarely fatal and typically just causes a rash and a fever. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a variant of spotted fever rickettsiosis which is much more severe.
Other tick-borne illnesses which are tracked in Alabama include anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, and tularemia, which are all caused by bacteria, as well as babesiosis which is caused by parasites.
Alabama records of Lyme disease have nearly doubled. In 2018 there were just 36 cases. In 2019, there were 66. Of course, some of these infections may have originated outside of Alabama, even though they were documented in the state. People travel, and someone may easily have been infected in a northeastern state prior to traveling into Alabama.
That said, some cases specifically note no travel history. This means further investigation is needed, especially because the condition used to be much more rare in Alabama.
There are also new threats to be aware of. Some new infections have been documented which were thought previously to only infect animals. For instance, the Heartland virus was identified in 2009. This virus is carried by lone star ticks. This species of tick also causes a very rare reaction in humans. It leads people who were bitten to be allergic to red meat.
Ticks themselves are not a new threat, and most tick-borne illnesses can be easily treated with antibiotics. However, early diagnosis must be improved in order to improve outcomes for patients.
This certainly isn’t a problem unique to Alabama, and everyone needs to be diligent about checking themselves for ticks.
You can read more about tick-borne illnesses here.