COLUMBUS (AP) -- The state is seeing a shocking increase in the number of deer ticks that can carry Lyme disease, prompting concerns that it will lead to more cases of the illness, insect experts said Wednesday.
A group that includes the state health and wildlife agencies is working to sort out what risks may be posed by last year's spike in confirmed deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, and how best to spread the word and keep people safe. The experts believe the higher numbers are a sign of tick population growth, not simply the result of more active searching last year.
It's unclear what spurred the increase, though researchers suspect one factor is favorable weather conditions that helped more of the tick population survive and thrive.
"We got kind of a red flag, a warning that something really unusual was happening with the tick population, and maybe we're out front of it a little bit" because the number of human cases of Lyme disease in Ohio hasn't shown a matching spike, said Glen Needham, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University who has studied the ticks and worked with the state to identify them.
More than 1,800 black-legged ticks were found on deer heads collected from hunters last year, and 183 more submitted to the state for identification were confirmed, compared with 29 found on deer heads the year before and 45 that were submitted and confirmed, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The ticks, some carrying Lyme disease, have especially shown up in eastern and southern Ohio.
The deer tick was first found in Ohio in 1989, and in the following two decades, only about 50 of the thousands of ticks found in the state were identified as black-legged ticks, state public health entomologist Richard Gary said. In 2010, 45 deer ticks were confirmed, giving officials their first indication of a change.
"We think that they've probably been there for a while, just in numbers too low to be detected, and that's what's changing," Gary said.
One of the problems with deer ticks is that they can be active throughout most of the year. And, unlike other ticks that are more finicky eaters, they'll feed on a variety of creatures found throughout Ohio, including deer, mice, birds and lizards -- and sometimes humans, Needham said.
Bites from infected ticks can lead to rashes, fevers and joint pains. If left untreated, damage to the heart and the nervous system can result.
So far, there's no parallel spike in cases of the disease in Ohio, which gets 40 to 50 cases annually, Gary said. There were 37 cases in 2010 and at least 51 last year.
As researchers and state officials wait to see if that changes for this year, they are trying to educate physicians, veterinarians, public health workers and residents about avoiding and identifying the ticks. They also plan to seek information from neighboring states including Pennsylvania, which has a higher incidence of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection.
It's familiar territory for Needham, who has been teaching workshops about ticks for decades and wondered as he approached retirement age whether Ohio would ever see more of them. He said residents who find a tick they consider suspicious should contact their county health departments or local extension offices.