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Entomologist: ‘The world has gotten ‘tickier’’

Brian Allan
L. Brian Stauffe
courtesy photo
Brian Allan

An entomologist who has studied ticks for nearly a quarter century said we are living in a time of change regarding the parasitic arachnids.

“Areas that used to be safe or relatively tick-free – ticks are colonizing those areas and bringing some pathogens with them,” said Brian Allan, professor of Entomology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“The world has gotten ‘tickier,’ including the Midwest and that presents a variety of health challenges.”

Allan wants people to enjoy nature and gain the mental and physical benefits of being outdoors. But he said people should take the proper precautions, such as by using repellants

“Some repellents are more effective against ticks than others, especially repellents with permethrin are good at repelling ticks,” he said.

Allan also recommended tucking pant legs into socks and shirts into pants. And he said you should thoroughly check yourself for ticks once you’re done working in the yard or garden.

“If you do those things in combination, you have a pretty good shot at preventing an illness,” Allan said.

Ticks in Illinois

Allan said there are at least three tick species in Illinois now that pose major health risks:

  • Deer ticks are now established in most of Illinois, including places where they would not have been seen 30 years ago. Allan said, “We now live in an area where Lyme disease occurs.”
  • The American dog tick (or wood tick) can also be found in much of Illinois. “That tick transmits Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is a quite dangerous pathogen that can make people very ill,” Allan said.
  • The southern part of the state has the lone star tick, which is moving northward. Its bite transmits a couple diseases, including ehrlichiosis, which is similar to Lyme disease. “The main difference is it makes people much sicker right away,” Allan said. As a result, those suffering from ehrlichiosis are more likely to see a doctor right away, meaning the illness is less likely to go undiagnosed and thus gets treated with antibiotics more quickly.

Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose. If people get sick from Lyme disease and don’t treat it right away, it can develop into a chronic illness that’s much more difficult to treat. Allan said it can become a debilitating, life-long condition.
“It affects their health. It affects their mental state. It can affect their ability to work,” he said.

“The economic losses from Lyme disease are considerable because you can take people who are otherwise healthy and productive, and they lose that as a result of having developed chronic Lyme disease.”

Climate change, wildlife helping ticks expand their territory

Allan said climate change is one of the factors causing the spread of ticks.

“We’re seeing more cases of tick-borne disease in periods of the year where we didn’t use to see them, and that’s almost certainly attributable to these warmer winters,” he said.

“Once it gets above about 35-degrees Fahrenheit, black-legged tick adults become active. We’re seeing more January and February cases of Lyme disease than we used to see in the past.”

In addition, whitetail deer populations are becoming larger in many states, and those deer are an important host for a number of tick species.

Migrating songbirds also disperse a lot of ticks.

“Each bird probably only has one or two ticks on it. But when you think about the number of birds flying through this landscape in the spring and in the fall, that’s actually a lot of ticks that are moving around,” he said.

More about Allan

Allan started studying ticks about 24 years ago as an undergraduate college student. He has developed a respect for ticks and what hardy creatures they are. They live for several years, meaning they generally survive several winters.

He said scientists like him are funded by taxpayer dollars to do their research.

“We really appreciate it and try to use those funds responsibly,” Allan said. “We encourage people to support funding for science because that’s where a lot of this discovery is made.”

Allan was in Macomb to deliver the annual Roger and Jean Morrow Lecture at Western Illinois University and to give a biological sciences seminar.

The Morrow Lecture is funded through an endowment in honor of Roger M. Morrow, the first head of the WIU Department of Physics, and his wife, Jean, who was one of the first female faculty members in Western’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.