Many of us will have heard of the risk of being bitten by a tick while walking in the woods: however, we are not only at risk in woods, as ticks can also live in long grass, recreation areas and municipal parks – and even in our gardens!
Studies carried out by Wageningen University & Research in a more than ten-year cooperation with the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) which are based on the collection of data about where and when members of the public have been bitten by a tick have revealed that ticks can be found literally everywhere in the Netherlands. Since 2012, everyone bitten by a tick has been able to report the tick bite to the Tekenradar.nl tick radar website. The initiator, Arnold van Vliet, a biologist at Wageningen University & Research, says that 'This form of research is referred to as "citizen science": the public is asked to help in gaining an insight into problems confronting society. Citizen science has revealed that one out of every five people who gets a tick bite is bitten in an urban area.'
But why should we worry about tick bites? After all, almost all of us will have been bitten by an ant at some time in the past, won't we?
Ticks are small, eight-legged animals that look rather like tiny spiders. Ticks have four stages in their life cycle: egg, larva, nymph, and adult (male and female). All ticks other than males suck blood from mammals, birds and reptiles.
Arnold Van Vliet explains that 'The problem is that ticks may carry a pathogenic bacteria species, a bacteria that can make humans sick.' This bacteria species is called Borrelia. The tick, which is not affected by Borrelia, can become infected with the bacteria while feeding on blood and then pass it on to the next person it bites. The tick is just the transmitter – the vector – of the bacteria. You might already know about this from malaria, where certain mosquito species are vectors of the malaria parasite.
Infection with Borrelia can cause Lyme disease, which can result in neurological, joint, skin or heart complaints. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Early treatment of the disease will be more successful.
Not all ticks are infected with Borrelia. Arnold Van Vliet says 'About 15 per cent of the ticks in urban areas are carriers. As a result, every year four thousand people in urban areas become infected with Lyme disease.'
This is also the reason why you need to check your skin after a visit to the park, a walk through the woods or along a footpath – and after working in your garden.
However, studies carried out by Wageningen University & Research to examine whether we do actually check for ticks reveal that many of us think that this check is difficult – just like we think removing a tick is not easy. 'So many of us simply skip the tick check,' Arnold Van Vliet says. Anyone who has difficulties with carrying out tick checks should watch this video, which also shows how ticks can be removed.
In addition to carrying out research into how to prevent tick bites, Wageningen University & Research's other tick studies include research into distribution mechanisms of ticks in the Netherlands, their possible transmission of other pathogenic microorganisms and potential methods of controlling ticks.
Reporting tick bites
If you have been bitten by a tick, please report your tick bite to Tekenradar.nl. Arnold Van Vliet explains that 'Reporting tick bites helps us in our research into risk factors, the control and prevention of tick bites and into Lyme disease.'