Small bites, big diseases

Folsom boy encounters rare tick-borne illness

Tick off.

Tick off.

Technically, ticks actually aren’t bugs. They’re arachnids, relatives of spiders. But the bloodsucking little devils still carry serious diseases, including tularemia—which was recently diagnosed in a boy in Folsom.

According to Dr. Glennah Trochet, the Sacramento County public health officer, the child was bitten by a tick in mid-July and became ill with what was later identified as tularemia.

The disease, also called “rabbit fever,” is carried by the common dog tick, the sort that owners pick off Fido without a thought. It can cause serious illness, including a nasty sore at the bite site and symptoms that mimic almost every other illness: fever, swollen glands, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores. Worse symptoms include diarrhea and pneumonia.

According to Trochet, after the Folsom child became ill, the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District collected ticks in the area where the child was bitten and found several that had the bacteria that causes tularemia, Francisella tularensis. “We can be fairly certain that the ticks are in other parts of the area,” she says.

Trochet explains there’s nothing to be gained from further tests, however, because “there’s really no good way of controlling ticks.” But the knowledge that some ticks are carrying tularemia is “enough to warn the public to take precautions, and enough to advise physicians to watch for cases.”

Tularemia is one of a number of diseases carried by ticks. The best known is Lyme disease, caused by a virus the tick carries. There were close to 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the United States in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

That means always using an insect repellent when outdoors. Trochet recommends using one containing DEET on the skin and a spray containing permethrin on clothing. Be particularly vigilant for ticks when you’ve been in wooded or grassy areas. In areas known to contain ticks, wear long sleeves and long pants, and tuck pants into socks to keep ticks off. Check yourself frequently for ticks and remove them immediately with tweezers. And stay away from dead or sick animals.