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It is the horror of every hiker: meeting the wrong tick. Something that may happen not only in the woods, but also in your own back garden. In fact, one third of all tick bites originates from there, a recent investigation has shown.
That is bad news, says Desirée Beaujean, department head of the National Institute of Public Health (Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu, RIVM) and recent PhD graduate from the UM on information services concerning Lyme's disease and ticks. “If it occurs so often so close to home, you should be on your guard all the time.”
Many people who see the red ring appear on their skin - the most prominent symptom of Lyme's disease – are terror-stricken. Some already view themselves on death’s doorstep. How did Lyme's disease get this terrifying reputation?
Beaujean: “Maybe because a symptom like facial paralysis looks quite impressive. A corner of the mouth hanging down looks really serious, but if you visit the hospital immediately for a course of antibiotics, the paralysis disappears again.”
The facts don't point in the direction of a gruesome disease that makes an endless string of victims either. “More than one million people are bitten by ticks every year, 25 thousand of whom develop Lyme's disease. That sounds like a lot, but for most of them, a course of antibiotics prevents any further complaints. Of those 25 thousand people, 1,000 to 2,500 continue to suffer chronic symptoms. So the chances are not really high."
In her PhD research, Beaujean wondered what people knew exactly about ticks and Lyme's disease. “Surprisingly, it was mainly adults who imagined ticks to be larger than they actually are. Children knew better, most likely because of children's programmes on TV.”
An obstinate old wives' tale is that ticks fall from trees. “People continue to believe that and put caps on their heads when they go into the woods. There is absolutely no need for this, because they crawl up from the high grass onto your trousers. After that, they look for warm places, the groin, the back of the knee or elbow, behind your ear.” Between the cheeks of your bum is another preferred spot.
Another question is: What measures are people prepared to take? “For a nature walk, it would be best if you put your trouser leg ends in your socks and wear protective clothing that has been impregnated with an insect repellent, such as DEET. But, come on, who does that? It's not feasible advice and that is why the RIVM has adapted its message. We now focus on checks, removal and being alert to the symptoms. In a few years’ time, when this message has sunk in, we can try the protective clothing and the use of rubbing preventive solutions on our bodies.”
The RIVM is not going to bore -and scare - people with other illnesses that can be transferred by ticks. “In Austria, they carry the meningitis virus and people there are vaccinated against this. In the Netherlands, that kind of infection hardly ever occurs through ticks, the first two occurrences dating from last year.”
Should there not be signs in all wooded areas saying ‘Beware of Ticks’, a researcher asked during the PhD ceremony. “That is already being done. In some wooded areas, there are signs saying ‘Carefree enjoyment? Check for ticks this evening.’ The advantage is that you refer to the risks at exactly the right time. I think this a cleverly conceived message, because you are not making people afraid but you are showing them how to prevent worse. I would like to see this sign in every wooded area.”
Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics