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Minn. health officials report early start to tick-borne disease season

An early spring has led to an early start to the tick-borne disease season, Minnesota Department of Health officials said today.

They are urging the public to start taking precautions from ticks and the diseases they can carry.

Black-legged ticks, or deer ticks, have already begun feeding in forested areas of the state, officials said. This type of tick carries organisms that can cause several diseases, among them Lyme disease, human anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Powassan disease and a new form of human erlichiosis.

Over the past decade, 1,000 to 2,000 or more combined cases of these tick-borne diseases have been reported to the Minnesota Department of Health. The numbers have increased in recent years.

Some cases have been fatal.

The risk usually doesn't start to rise until late spring. It typically stays elevated until midsummer, then has a second, smaller peak in autumn. But the mild winter and warm weather during March this year hastened the start of the season, said Dave Neitzel, a state Health Department epidemiologist specializing in tick-borne diseases.

"This early start to the tick season could lead to a longer than usual risk season in 2012, potentially worsening Minnesota's troubling trend of marked increases in numbers of Lyme disease and other tick-borne disease cases," Neitzel said in a Health Department news release.

Health officials said the best way to prevent tick bites is to avoid tick habitat during the warm months. These include wooded or brushy areas favored by the black-legged tick and the grassy or wooded areas where the American dog tick is most commonly found.

Repellents containing DEET or permethrin also can help.

Early detection is important for preventing serious illness and complications from tick-borne disease, so symptoms suggesting tick-borne illness should be reported promptly to a doctor.

Common symptoms are rash, fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain or swelling, and facial droop. Except for Powassan disease, which is caused by a virus, all of Minnesota's tick-borne diseases are treatable with antibiotics.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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