July 13, 2024

Increased Activity of Vector-Borne Diseases Identified in Kansas

Topeka, Kan.–While ticks and mosquitoes are a natural part of our environment, it is important to know that some may transmit harmful diseases. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) tracks illnesses caused by ticks and mosquitoes, and as of May 29, 2024, has received over 200 laboratory reports of tickborne diseases. Additionally, KDHE has received several reports of tick bites and complaints of high numbers of ticks, which indicates that tick activity and density are increasing and are occurring earlier in the season this year. 

Numerous tickborne diseases caused by bacteria are present in Kansas. These include Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and other Spotted Fever Group Rickettsioses (SFGR), and Tularemia. Two rare tickborne viruses, Heartland virus and Bourbon virus, have also been identified in Kansas in both humans and ticks. All of these tickborne diseases are transmitted by the Lone Star tick, the most abundant tick in Kansas. Lone Star ticks can be found widely throughout at least the eastern two-thirds of the state in a variety of habitats and are aggressive human biters. This year alone, KDHE has investigated several tickborne disease cases with severe health outcomes, including hospitalizations due to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia, and a fatal case of Bourbon virus. 

“Vector-borne diseases, both those that are transmitted by ticks and those transmitted by mosquitoes are extremely active this year,” Dr. Erin Petro, KDHE State Public Health Veterinarian, said. “I really encourage people to take the risk of vector-borne diseases seriously and take personal protective measures for themselves and their pets to reduce their chance of acquiring an illness from a tick or mosquito bite. We’re also seeing emerging tick-associated conditions, like Alpha-gal syndrome, which can have lifelong consequences for those affected, which is why bite prevention is so important.”

In addition to increased tickborne diseases being reported to KDHE, there have been increased case reports of West Nile Virus (WNV), which is a reportable disease. While WNV cases occur every year in Kansas, the concerning trend this year is how early it’s being seen. Cases of WNV typically start in late July to early August. However, KDHE has already had two cases of WNV reported.

These cases serve as an important reminder to take precautions as you enjoy the outdoors this summer. Ticks are commonly found at the edge of trails, on tall grasses and in wooded, shaded areas. Mosquitoes are often more common at dawn and dusk and can breed in small amounts of standing water.

To reduce the risk of contracting a vector-borne disease, take the following steps:
1. Use an EPA-registered insect repellent such as DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535 on all exposed skin. If going camping or hiking, treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin.

2. When doing yardwork, hiking, camping or recreating in areas where ticks and mosquitoes may be found, wear long pants tucked into socks or boots, if possible. Additionally, light colored clothing can make it easier to spot ticks.

3. Take steps to control mosquitoes indoors and outdoors, such as emptying standing water, particularly in old tires, tarps and flowerpots. Empty bird baths at least once a week to disrupt the mosquito life cycle.

4. Ensure pets remain tick free by consulting with a veterinarian about tick prevention products. 

5. After spending time outdoors, shower and check for ticks again (some can be hard to spot). The vital areas to check are in and around the hair and ears, under the arms, inside the belly button, around the waist, between the legs and the back of the knees.

6. If a tick has bitten you, don’t squeeze it. Remove it with tweezers by grasping the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible, then pull outward. Dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet. Don’t forget to check pets for ticks.

7. Pay attention to common signs and symptoms of vector-borne illness such as fever/chills, body aches and/or rash. If any of these symptoms are present within a few weeks of spending time outdoors in areas that may have ticks or mosquitoes, it’s important to talk with a doctor about being tested for vector-borne illnesses.

For more information, visit KDHE’s Tickborne Disease Data Stories to learn more about tickborne diseases, signs and symptoms specific to each disease, tick bite prevention and tick distribution. CDC also has additional information about vector-borne diseases on their website.