Ticks more plentiful this year due to warm winter
Specialists believe there could be more ticks than usual this year because the mild winter favored parasitic insects. It remains unclear how dangerous ticks are this year.
Two cases of tick-borne viral encephalitis and over 300 cases of Lyme's disease have been diagnosed in Estonia since the start of the year. Irina Dontšenko, adviser for epidemiological readiness at the Health Board, said that the case rate remains on par with previous years. Dontšenko described ticks as being more active this year.
"The winter was relatively mild and everyone wants to feed. Especially smaller ticks that have not tasted blood yet, they are especially hungry," Dontšenko said.
Professor Eerik Jõgi from the Tartu Healthcare College also said that a mild winter helped ticks survive and that their numbers, not so much their activity could be higher this year.
"If the summer is too hot and dry, ticks are less active because they risk drying up. They also remain less active when the summer is too wet and cold. But a summer that has a good balance of rain and warmth is liked by people and ticks alike," Jõgi said.
Head of the virology and immunology department of the Estonian Institute for Health Development Julia Geller confirmed that the abundance of ticks depends on several factors.
"What suits a tick in Pärnu County and makes it more active there does not necessarily exist in Viljandi County, for example. Certain risk areas have developed in Estonia," Geller said.
Irina Dontšenko said that while there are cases in every county, high-risk areas do stand out. Case rates for tick-borne diseases are much higher in Western and Southeastern Estonia when compared to the rest of the country.
"If average morbidity for tick-borne viral encephalitis came to 6.3 cases per 100,000 residents last year, it was 15 times that in Hiiumaa, four times that in Saaremaa and twice that in Pärnu and Põlva counties. Coming to borreliosis, average morbidity came to 175 cases, with the rate six times that in Saaremaa, 1.7 times in Pärnu County and 1.5 times in Rapla and Võru counties," Dontšenko said.
The more ticks an area has, the higher the chances of catching tick-borne diseases.
"The Western Estonian phenomenon is that while there are just as many disease-carrying ticks there as everywhere else, the fact their numbers are two to four times higher means so is the risk of catching a disease," she explained.
Data from last year suggests up to a third of ticks could be carriers of borreliosis or Lyme's disease.
People can protect themselves against tick-borne diseases with a vaccine that Dontšenko said is becoming more popular. While people can vaccinate at any time, it takes a while for immunity to develop.
Tucking pant legs into socks and boots before heading into tall grass or the woods and checking oneself and one's companions for ticks during and after hikes is another effective way to stay safe.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski