LDA questions the role of deer in the spread of Lyme disease

Today, the BBC reported on a new study suggesting that a large deer cull would bring a number of environmental benefits (read article). However, the overall role of deer in Lyme disease is unclear, says charity Lyme Disease Action.

Lyme disease is an infectious disease transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected tick and, according to the BBC, there are now more deer in the UK than at any time since the last Ice Age.

As the UK’s largest wild mammal, deer support what seems to be a growing and spreading population of ticks. Deer themselves do not carry the Lyme disease bacteria but, by playing host to adult ticks and carrying these through urban parks (such as Richmond Park in London) as well as countryside (including country gardens), they spread the tick eggs, which start a new generation. These eggs hatch and the resulting ticks will feed on Lyme disease-infected mice and birds, pick up the bacteria and then pass them on to humans.

Ticks can be found all over the UK in gardens, woods, moors and parks. They are also found across Europe, Scandinavia and North America.  (NB: Not all ticks carry Lyme disease – infection rates in tick populations vary by tick species and geographic region.)

Lyme disease numbers have been increasing year on year, but nobody knows exactly why. The Health Protection Agency believes the figures of confirmed cases to be around 3,000 per year. Lyme Disease Action believes the true numbers are much higher – probably over 15,000 cases per year – as many go undiagnosed. The reason for the increase can’t be pinpointed exactly, but factors may include the large increase in the UK’s deer population, damper summers, milder winters, higher recreational use of parks and countryside and a modest increase in awareness of the disease.

Comments Stella Huyshe-Shires, chair of Lyme Disease Action, “The role of deer is twofold: they spread the ticks, but they kill off the bacteria. Overall, we don’t know whether their net effect on Lyme disease is good or bad; nature has a habit of being complicated.”

Lyme disease causes a range of unpleasant symptoms which may include a circular red rash, headaches, a stiff neck, extreme fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and disturbances of sight, hearing, digestive system and sleep. If left untreated it can progress to the joints, the heart and the nervous system.

 Lyme Disease Action is a charity striving for greater awareness of Lyme disease and associated tick-borne diseases.

Ends/7 March 2013

Note to Editors:

1) The Moorland Association represents the owners and managers of 850,000 acres of heather moorland in the North of England and strongly endorses the work of Lyme Disease Action. 350 square miles of tick-harbouring bracken have been controlled in the last decade in the UK, yet it is still on the increase. Moorland Association members have been responsible for a large proportion of bracken spraying to date, but the EU ban on Asulam – the only selective and safe herbicide – could lead to all the good work being undone. See http://www.moorlandassociation.org/ for more details.

2) A Lyme disease poster, showing how to remove a tick correctly, and leaflets on Lyme disease, are available for publication if required or, free of charge, for readers to take to their own local GP or veterinary practice. A fact sheet is also available on request. Tick removers can be ordered via the Lyme Disease Action website and cost from £4.99 including p&p.

Press: Issued by Lyme Disease Action’s press office (www.lymediseaseaction.org.uk).   

For more information, or to speak to Stella Huyshe-Shires, the Chair of Lyme Disease Action, please contact Sue Ockwell or Helena Hamlyn via email – press@lymediseaseaction.org.uk – or ring 020 8891 4440

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