Thomas Mather is a professor of public health entomology at the University of Rhode Island. He directs the TickEncounter Resource Center, a leading source on tick-bite protection and disease prevention.
Ticks definitely are a bigger problem than 25 years ago. In the northeastern U.S., Blacklegged (deer) ticks have spread well beyond former coastal haunts; in the southeast, Lone Star ticks are seemingly everywhere. The only good news is that dog ticks are far less common in domestic environments, probably due to wider-spread use of pet spot-on products.
Deer are the most important reproductive hosts for deer ticks.- Thomas Mather
The observed tick increase relates directly to deer populations, which are exploding in suburban and even semi-urban areas. Deer are the most important reproductive hosts for deer and Lone Star ticks. In Rhode Island, each deer produces about 450,000 larval deer ticks every year. Add a few deer and it’s no wonder that tick populations skyrocket. While the level of deer reduction needed is logistically and politically challenging, one potential solution we are working on is an anti-tick vaccine — to make humans or deer inhospitable tick hosts.
As disease-carrying ticks become more common in the domestic environment, tick bite protection and disease prevention becomes a critical everyday need (at least during spring and summer). Effective everyday tick-bite protection strategies do exist but few people use them regularly.
Until effective broad-spectrum vaccines are found, social marketing may prove most effective at encouraging anti-tick actions. For example, changing the way people dress in summer — wearing clothing with permethrin tick repellent built in — can make protection easy, but this strategy is still not mainstream. Maybe just a few of the thousands of celebrities living within 25 miles of the Route 95 corridor from Washington to Maine could step forward and help out.