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Beware the tick

In April 2010, SOWN's Director Robert Whyte spent five days in hospital with a very nasty illness caused by a tick bite.

The little-known scrub or tick typhus, a Rickettsial infection, was to blame. These infections are carried by ticks feeding on the blood of local mammals.

There are two main types of the disease around South-East Queensland:

  • Queensland tick typhus caused by Rickettsia australis transmitted by the Paralysis Tick Ixodes holocyclus
  • scrub typhus caused by Orientia tsutsugamushi transmitted by mites known as scrub ticks or pepper ticks (chiggers)
Orientia tsutsugamushi
"Tsutsugamushi" by Japanese painter, Shunsen Takehara in 1841 depicting an imaginary creature Japanese people in the 19th century believed was responsible for the illness.

The diseases are caused by tiny organisms that live in the blood of local mammals such as bandicoots and wallabies. These mammals probably suffer slightly, but are largely immune. Some bandicoots carry up to a thousand ticks and seem to live normal lives.

The infections in humans are extremely serious and have been fatal when left untreated.

In humans the reaction to the infection causes the immune system to over-react, leading to liver and multiple organ failure.

Early symptoms include high fever, leading to bouts of sweating and uncontrollable shivering, severe headaches and extreme weakness. It's like a very bad flu, except there is no sore throat. Unlike a flu, symptoms continue to worsen.

If the cause is recognized, it is easily treated with the antibiotic doxycycline. Other types of antibiotics, including the most common types, are ineffective.

Scrub typhus is found in the "tsutsugamushi triangle" from northern Japan and far-eastern Russia in the north, to northern Australia in the south, and to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west.

Both Scrub Typhus and Queensland Tick Typhus are extremely uncommon in suburban Brisbane, yet probably increasing.

But bushcarers are certainly at risk. If you have had multiple tick or tick-like bites and get the sweats, shivers, feel extremely weak and sick, go immediately to hospital and suggest rickettsial infection might be the cause.

But prevention is better than cure. So what can you do?

Stopping the tick

Since his Rickettsial infection, Rob has implemented an anti-tick regime which has been highly effective.

To begin, he wears full protective clothing:

  • long-sleeved shirt
  • long trousers
  • work boots
  • sock savers
  • broad-brimmed hat
  • riggers gloves

Rob always applies insect repellent to any exposed skin, hairline and especially the neck and scalp. The local Queensland product Rid seems the most effective, though others in 'tropical strength' also work.

Rob washes all his clothing after every bushcare session. Ticks, especially when larval often get into clothing and lurk there waiting to attach if you put the clothes on again. Chiggers, the mites, are more or less invisible and can lurk in clothes in great numbers.

Treating tick bite

There is a great deal of misinformation about treating tick bite. Many of the methods agitate the tick and cause it to release more venom.

If a paralysis tick has inserted its '   hypostome' into your skin the best way to treat it is to kill it with an insecticide such as Lyclear, an anti scabies cream, available over the counter from a pharmacy. This disturbs the tick the least.

Apply the Lyclear twice, a minute apart. This will kill the tick. You will know it's dead when its legs stop wriggling. Just wait for it to drop off. This might take some hours.

Scrub ticks are so small you probably won't see them. The Lyclear works on them too but they will burrow into the skin and by then it's too late. A hot shower after a walk in scrub-tick territory works well.

Many people have an allergy to ticks especially paralysis ticks. At worst, the allergy can be fatal if it leads to anaphylactic shock. If you are getting severe allergic reactions, see your doctor or go to hospital. If you have trouble breathing, call an ambulance.

You may become increasingly allergic over time. If so, try to use Rob's methods to avoid being bitten in the first place.

More tips from a SOWN member

SOWN member Justine Barrett writes:

We too have been dealing with a lot of ticks since moving to Camp Mountain in June. Our youngest Zavier has already developed a severe allergic reaction that causes extreme swelling almost like bee sting reactions.

We have now started using what is called a 'Tick twister' which you can buy from the Vet. If you google it there is demo videos on how it works (see link below). I was sceptical as it looks more like a miniature pick but it is fantastic and can take out even the really tiny pinhead size ones instantly. With a dose of antihistamine to stop the itch we are coping a lot better.

Also Rid is the only insect repellent that contains DEET which is the ingredient that repels the paralysis tick which I also did not know after still getting ticks using aeroguard.

Anyway just thought this might be something useful.

Report of another Rickettsial infection

Another member writes:

We wanted to let you know that in July our 3-year-old son spent 9 days in hospital with a unknown infection. Four days after he was discharged we found out he had a Rickettsial infection. The next day while getting his hair cut we found a sore on his head where they think the tick had been on him.

To this day we don't how long the tick was on him or where it went. The doctor looking after him was very puzzled as this disease is very uncommon in Brisbane but maybe it is on the rise. We live at Upper Kedron and have a water corridor backing onto our backyard. This is where we were thinking he got the tick.