The Virginia Department of Health is asking for the public’s help in identifying and locating a tick that’s relatively new to the valley.
The Asian longhorned tick is all through the mountains of Virginia, said state public health entomologist Dr. David Gaines.
“We are in the process of trying to find out how severe of a threat this is in the U.S.”
The tick occurs in wooded areas, but unlike other ticks found around the valley, they’re also found in fields.
So far, he said, the Asian longhorned tick has been officially documented in Warren and Clarke counties, as well as nearby counties of Rockbridge, Rockingham, Page, Augusta, Albemarle and Louisa, and in southwest Virginia.
Gaines said the Department of Agriculture is studying the tick’s effects on the commonwealth.
“They think it’s a big threat to the cattle industry and the livestock industry,” he said.
The longhorned tick is a vector of many diseases for humans, including Lyme, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, babesiosis, Powassan virus disease and the Korean-Chinese version of the Heartland virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the Heartland virus has produced more than 40 cases in the Midwest, as of 2018.
“We just haven’t seen it yet in Virginia,” Gaines said. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t here.”
Ticks transmit illnesses to humans while feeding on their blood. If they’re carrying a disease, then their saliva can transmit the disease to their host. Gaines said the best method of protecting against ticks is to recognize their habitats and avoid those areas if not dressed appropriately or treated with repellents.
“If you’re going into the woods, you’d better be dressed protectively for ticks,” he said.
Wear long pants, socks, and close-toed shoes, Gaines advised.
Tuck your pants into your socks or boots, and your shirt into the waist of your pants, he said. That way, ticks traveling up the body have no access to a person’s skin.
“The next most important thing to do is to wear treated clothing,” he said.
Spray clothing with a broad range insecticide like permethrin, which acts against fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and flies.
A tick might still climb up treated clothes, Gaines said, “[but] by the time it gets to your waistline, it’s too intoxicated to bite you.”
Other common ticks in the valley are the blacklegged tick (or deer tick) and the lone star tick, which both inhabit forests and search out deer as ways of feeding and mating.
“If there was truly a deer tick, it’s the lone star tick,” Gaines said. “Without deer, there would be no lone star ticks.”
Male and female ticks are more likely to encounter each other on a deer, he said. Unless they’re able to mate on the ground, they’re going to meet and mate on a deer.
At lower elevations, “lone star ticks rule,” he said. Above 1,900 feet, people are more likely to encounter blacklegged ticks.
“Blacklegged ticks in particular are a forest creature,” he said. “They like shade. They like leaf litter.”
Though there’s a misconception about blacklegged ticks and lone star ticks inhabiting fields in non-wooded areas, Gaines said suburban areas are a likely place to find ticks.
“Some of the highest numbers of Lyme disease are found in Fairfax County,” he said. A big reason for that is because deforestation and loss of animals’ natural habitats promote high populations of deer.
“Where you have uncontrolled populations of deer… you’ll have lots of those ticks,” he said.
But now with the introduction of Asian longhorned ticks to the region, Gaines said fields and areas of tall grass have also become places of concern.
Because experts have little experience with this tick since it was first reported in the U.S. in 2017, Gaines said he’s interested in hearing from anyone who’s encountered a longhorned tick or anyone who captures a tick they can’t identify.
“We want to know about it,” he said.
“We don’t know what it’s going to do here in Virginia,” he said. “It’s in a new environment.”
To contact the Department of Health with information on Asian longhorned ticks, email email@example.com. Preserve the tick in a jar or vial with rubbing alcohol, which will kill the tick but also partially preserve it for study. The Health Department will respond to emails about ticks and arrange to have the ticks shipped to them through the mail.
For more information on tick prevention or removal, visit the CDC at https://www.cdc.gov/ticks.