Tick Borne Illness Prevention

Tick borne illnesses can be prevented with a few easy steps

By Chris Jennings
February 1, 2024

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Tick-borne illnesses have more than doubled in the U.S. in the past two decades. Tick-borne illnesses are diseases spread from the bite of a tick carrying a pathogen that causes human disease.

Some reasons for the rise in the tick population are rising heat and humidity, allowing them to thrive longer in more places and improved tracking of the diseases.

The Choctaw Nation is conducting a tick-borne illness survey to better identify exactly what ticks are currently present in the Nation and develop a course of action to inform the public of how to avoid them and what to do if they are bitten.

Mason Emert, an epidemiologist with the Choctaw Nation, says the most common tick they see in the area that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is the American Dog Tick. That’s part of what Choctaw Nation’s tick-borne disease surveillance project is for, though.

“We’ll be identifying which specific ticks and which specific diseases are prevalent within Choctaw Nation,” said Emert.

The voluntary survey is open to anyone living in the Choctaw Nation, both tribal and non-tribal members. The survey will collect information to see which communities are experiencing tick bites, What individuals do when they recognize a tick bite, whether they have heard of tick-borne diseases, and whether they know the symptoms to watch out for and how to prevent tick bites around their home.

Emert said that the most common tick-borne illness across Oklahoma and the Choctaw Nation in general is Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). Most counties within the Choctaw Nation reservation historically rank among the highest for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever incidents across the state.

It can be hard to identify if a tick bit you if you don’t find the tick on you, and sometimes the symptoms can be hard to distinguish from other things.

“Common symptoms are usually fever, headache, or rash around the area where you were bitten. It could become systemic across your body, causing nausea, vomiting, stomach or muscle pain, and a lack of appetite,” said Emert.

In December 2023, the CDC issued a warning related to RMSF. The health advisory was issued to notify healthcare providers and the public about an outbreak of RMSF among people in the United States who have recently traveled to or resided in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico.

Five hospitalizations and three deaths were linked to RMSF since July. However, all those cases originated with travel to Baja California, Mexico. The health advisory highlights the seriousness of checking for ticks and finding treatment in any area where the disease is known to be.

Ticks are small and sometimes hard to find; it’s important to recognize the symptoms and get the treatment needed. If that doesn’t happen, it can have devastating lifelong effects.

Melissa Wilson says it always took her longer to recover from things when she was a kid, and things worsened as an adult.

“I was just always a little tougher to get well than other people. Things like routine dental appointments would always take me a week to get over where most people are okay the next day,” said Wilson.

That’s how things went for most of Wilson’s life: fatigued and illnesses hard to get over, but nothing that raised serious alarms until seven years ago. That’s when Wilson said things started to go drastically downhill.

She took several trips to different doctors and emergency rooms, and the diagnoses always ranged from just having the “crud” to one visit where they thought she was on drugs.

Wilson says a few hours after one of those trips where she was given IV steroids, things started happening to her face.

“I started doing all kinds of weird things like my face was contorting and doing a lot of weird stuff. The right side of my face would drop way down like I had a stroke. And the next thing you know, my left eyebrow would be up way high. And it was like my whole body was doing all these weird things, and nobody had any idea what on earth was wrong with me,” said Wilson.

Things didn’t get better for Wilson, and she says her family was really affected by it.

“My husband would get to a place where he thought, Lord, she’s gonna die, and he would take me to an emergency room,” Wilson said.

Still, none of those trips resulted in any answers as Wilson continued to decline.

“I got to the point where my muscles were wasting; I couldn’t walk myself to the restroom from my bed. My kids would sit at my bedside and cry,” said Wilson.

That’s when her mother took her to her primary care doctor, where a nurse practitioner looked at her and immediately said she had Lyme disease.

She was then put on antibiotics and has since gotten slightly better to what she calls a base level. Wilson said, “After we pinpointed what it was, I got back to what she called a base level, which is where we’re going from here.”

While initial blood work did not find any evidence of Lyme disease, Wilson said a more thorough test found evidence of the disease in her DNA.

After initial treatment, Wilson did get a little better. “I was able to walk to the bathroom; I was able to get up and get around, and I didn’t have the constant facial stuff,” she said.

According to the CDC, symptoms like Wilson experienced on her face can be signs of neurologic Lyme disease. Neurologic symptoms of Lyme disease occur when the Lyme disease bacteria affect the peripheral or central nervous systems.

According to the Oklahoma Health Department, Lyme disease in Oklahoma is rare. Still, ticks carrying the bacteria known to cause Lyme disease have been found in the state.

With the help of the nurse practitioner, Wilson was able to narrow down the time frame where she thinks she contracted the disease. When she was 10 years old, Wilson was hospitalized with what they thought was mono and hepatitis.

This was all about a week after she was at a swimming beach near Beavers Bend, and that’s where Wilson thinks she contracted the disease.

Wilson stresses the importance of checking for ticks and seeing a doctor if you start having any symptoms. Tick-borne illnesses are treatable if caught early, but as in Wilson’s case, they can have life-changing effects if not caught in time.

Wilson says her goal now is to have more good days than bad.

“Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t, but I don’t dwell on it,” she said.

Wilson’s story highlights the importance of taking steps to prevent tick bites and searching for them after frequenting areas where ticks may be.

Emert also says taking steps to prevent tick bites is important.

“One of the biggest key components of it is wearing repellent. Also, wearing long sleeve clothing or long pants, along with shoes or boots that go up to where the tick can’t necessarily bite onto the skin, are good preventative measures,” he said.

Another big component is ensuring you mow your yard and keep it debris-free.

“But then also looking around your yard, identifying brushy areas, staying away from those, and walking in a clear path” said Emmert. “If you’re hiking or doing outdoor activities like that.”

Emmert also suggested checking your pets to ensure they’re not carrying ticks inside, which is a good idea.

As with anything, Emmert says, there are also misconceptions about ticks and tick bites. A couple of common ones are that you can cover the tick in petroleum jelly or hold a flame near it to make it release its bite. Emmert suggests not doing either because they can cause more harm than good.

“It’s recommended that you use a pair of tweezers and grasp it by the head and not the body so that you pull the whole tick off your body and the head doesn’t stay attached. Then, collect it and discard it to where it can’t bite, or put it in a container and throw it away,” Emmert said.

Another misconception is that ticks don’t bite in the winter.

Emmert says, “There certainly are, and certain ticks prefer colder weather, or those environments compared to warmer climates.”

Emmert hopes the tick survey being done by the Nation can help create awareness about how to avoid ticks and make more informed decisions about what ticks are in the area and what the Nation can do to help.

“We’re very proud of it. It’s expected to be one of Oklahoma’s largest tick-borne disease surveillance operations,” Emmert said. “So, the Choctaw Nation is leading the way with that, and we’re really gearing up to improve our disease surveillance across Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority as a whole.”