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With wildlife at the backdoor, Pennsylvanians watch out for ticks

Pennsylvania has one of the highest incidences of Lyme disease in the country; more cases of this tick-borne bacterial infection were confirmed in the commonwealth in 2019 than in all of New England.

Without treatment, Lyme disease can lead to severe neurological conditions. These include nerve pain, facial palsy and meningitis symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, and severe headache.

Microbiologist Dannielle Tufts says the frequency of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania is likely because its climate and abundance of green space are particularly hospitable to ticks and their hosts.

“In Pittsburgh, you can find deer walking down your street,” said Tufts, an expert on vector-borne diseases at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

Deer do not carry Lyme disease, though they provide a food source for adult ticks that meet their mates while feeding on deer blood. They then go on to produce up to 3,000 eggs.

While Pennsylvania sees a significant percentage of the nation's Lyme disease cases, incidences of the illness have been rising across North America for decades.

A warming climate is partly to blame; milder winters are easier for both ticks and their hosts to survive. Also, deforestation means wild animals that have lost their habitats now live in cities.

"I know people that have, you know, raccoons and possums in their backyards and eating their cat food that they leave out," said Tufts, noting that these animals frequently harbor ticks.

To avoid Lyme disease, Tufts advises that people apply DEET insect repellent while outdoors. Also, they should check themselves, their kids and pets for ticks.

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