Don’t lose sleep over a tick takeover in South Dakota

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Ticks can carry Lyme disease and other serious illnesses. Here are some tips for avoiding these problems.
USA TODAY NETWORK

A white-footed mouse has shaken loose America’s fear of ticks, but prairie-dwelling South Dakotans might as well climb down from their chairs.

The mice thrived on the East Coast last year thanks to an overabundance of acorns the year before, which bolstered this year’s population of the Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks who thrive on them.

Stories about the danger of Lyme disease have bubbled up in several major media outlets this summer.

Profiles of celebrities with Lyme disease — Alec Baldwin and Avril Lavigne among them — have added urgency to calls for vigilance in the application of DEET-containing insect repellent and covering your arms and legs on hikes.

Here’s the thing, though: Deer ticks are more than happy to feast on humans, but they aren’t particularly fond of the prairie landscape. They prefer the woods of northern Minnesota or Wisconsin.

“South Dakota is wonderful territory for dog ticks. It’s not a great place for the deer tick,” said Mike Hildreth, a microbiology professor at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

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The 11 cases of Lyme disease reported in South Dakota last year were all connected to people who’d visited somewhere else.

That’s not to say there are no deer ticks in South Dakota — researchers at the University of South Dakota found some near Clay County a while ago and there’s evidence their numbers could grow — but the chance of picking one up is slim at this point.

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“It’s possible that a person that’s not left South Dakota could come up infected with Lyme, but you’ve got a much better chance of getting killed on the highway,” Hildreth said.

The dog tick, which is larger than a deer tick, carries a different disease: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

The Lone Star Tick is a vector for a disease called Tularemia, but that one has yet to make its presence known in South Dakota.

Two things need to be present in large numbers before a disease becomes a serious public health concern, according to Geoffrey Vincent, a doctoral candidate in Hildreth’s department who specializes in vector ecology: The carrier and the disease.

Vincent did his master’s thesis on ticks in Missouri. He tested about 400 deer ticks for Lyme disease and found it in about five percent. On the East Coast, the disease is present in closer to a third of the tested ticks.

“It’s not something to be worried about just yet,” Vincent said. “I don’t think we have Lyme disease in South Dakota.”

Even so, people travel and pick up ticks. It’s important to keep in mind that ticks need to latch into your skin and stay there a good long time — 24 hours or more — before you can get sick, and that the symptoms could appear even later.

If you find and engorged tick and would like it tested, you can send it to SDSU or USD. If you’d like to wait a few days to see if symptoms appear before doing so, you can keep it in rubbing alcohol to preserve it.

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Another important point: West Nile virus is far more common in South Dakota than Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme disease.

Luckily, Hildreth said, “the precautions for West Nile — the DEET and the covering yourself — also work against ticks.”

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