Health officials on alert for tick fever

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, May 24, 2012

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S ummer is almost here, which means the Navajo Nation Veterinary and Livestock Program is once again bracing for an epidemic the Navajo Nation has managed to avoid for several years through, near as anybody can tell, sheer luck.

Since 2003, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever has been identified in Arizona. There have been 194 cases and 17 deaths - all Native Americans living on three reservations near Phoenix, and mostly children under eight years old.

Glenda Davis, head of the Veterinary and Livestock Program, says it's no mystery why Arizona's Natives are most susceptible to the sometimes fatal disease.

"It's our culture," she said. "We think we have to let our dogs run free."

The bacterium that causes spotted fever, Rickettsia rickettsii, is transmitted by ticks, and ticks are transmitted by dogs.

For years, it was thought that only three species of tick - the deer tick, the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the Lone Star tick - carried the bacterium. But lately, it has turned up in the brown dog tick. That's the extremely common tick that, unless you regularly treat your dog for ticks and fleas, is probably sucking blood from him right now.

If an infected tick bites your dog, Davis explained, the bacterium gets into the animal's bloodstream, where it can infect the next tick that sucks its blood. If that tick then bites you or your child, it transmits the bacterium to you through its blood-thinning saliva.

If you're lucky, you will soon exhibit the classic spotted rash that characterizes Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Your physician will recognize it and give you doxycycline, and you will start to recover in a few days.

But many victims don't exhibit the rash. Instead, they will have flu-like symptoms such as body aches, respiratory problems and nausea. It's quite possible their doctor will tell them they have a flu virus, and send them home with a prescription of aspirin and bed rest.

In eight days, their organs will start shutting down and they could die or be left with permanent neurological symptoms.

Since the Phoenix area tribes are plagued by stray dogs and many pet owners don't believe in confining their pets, the disease has spread rapidly - from 13 cases in 2004 to around 50 last year.

The only mystery, Davis said, is why it hasn't shown up in humans on Navajo, where an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 dogs are running free, and most have ticks.

According to Davis, the Centers for Disease Control sampled blood from dogs in all the Navajo Nation animal shelters in 2005, and found rickettsii in Shiprock and Crownpoint.

That has given the Navajo Nation some lead time in preparing for a possible outbreak.

Davis said her program has alerted the IHS, the community health representatives and the Navajo Housing Authority to be on the lookout for tick infestations and humans or animals exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

But, as with any health problem, the bottom line is personal responsibility.

"This is a very, very preventable disease," she said, "but we have to change our cultural outlook."

The best thing an individual family can do, Davis said, is to stay away from ticks. Check yourself and your children daily for the insects and tweeze them out straight up if you find them. Don't crush them to death with a thumbnail - if they're gorged with infected blood, you may just be spreading the bacterium. Instead, drop them into a bottle of alcohol or bleach.

Once you've been bitten, watch carefully for flu-like symptoms and rush to the doctor if you suspect tick fever. Be sure to tell your physician you've had a tick bite so he doesn't dismiss the symptoms as an ordinary flu.

Here are some other tips:

  • Treat all your dogs for ticks and fleas, and don't let them roam at large where they can mingle with strays
  • Wash pet and human bedding frequently and dry in dryer (but be aware this isn't a cure - in some life stages, ticks can survive a trip through both the washer and dryer)
  • Keep pet and human sleeping areas separate
  • Don't stack wood against your house
  • Use an insect repellent with DEET when you go outdoors in the summer, or before handling tick-infested pets
  • If you suspect you have a tick infestation in your home, have it professionally fumigated
  • Trim back thick vegetation around your home, and drain standing water (ticks can go weeks without feeding on blood, but need regular drinks of water)
  • Don't leave old mattresses or couches outdoors for summer sleeping - ticks love hiding out in old upholstery
  • Spay or neuter your pet to prevent overpopulation and more roaming strays
  • Turn unwanted pets over to Animal Control rather than releasing them to fend for themselves
  • In the meantime, arm yourself with education. The NNVLP can provide plenty of written material, or a training seminar for your chapter, church or housing unit.

    If everyone is on the alert, it could mean the difference between an epidemic on Navajo and a disease that - so far - we've only heard about.