Spotted Fever Plagues Southern Gila County

Surge in tick-borne illness spreads alarm

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Gila County has reported an outbreak of potentially fatal spotted fever, with eight cases already reported in southern Gila County.

So far, no cases have been reported in northern Gila County, according to Gila County Health and Emergency Services Director Michael O’Driscoll.

Last year, the bacteria spread by ticks caused 54 cases of the flu-like disease which led to 11 deaths in three northern Arizona counties, including Gila County.

Arizona cases of the tick-borne disease have risen steadily for the past decade, but spiked alarmingly last year. Officials say warming temperatures in April could cause a surge of cases through September, when ticks again become less active as temperatures drop.

Health officials urge residents to get tick collars for dogs and inspect both themselves and their pets after outdoor activities.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is an infection that in Arizona is spread primarily by the common brown dog tick, mostly at higher elevations. The ticks often attach to dogs and can then move over to people.

The antibiotic Doxycycline readily kills the bacteria if started within the first days symptoms emerge — which includes fever,

headaches, nerve pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and a rash — often on the palms and soles of the feet. Doctors advise anyone in the at-risk area to start on the antibiotic immediately, rather than waiting for lab results to tell for sure whether they have spotted fever. The disease has a mortality rate of 3 to 5 percent, which topped 30 percent before the development of the antibiotics.

Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services, said “If everyone used tick collars on their dogs, I think we’d have a lot fewer cases.”

A tick has to remain attached to its host for about 24 hours before spreading the bacteria. Even in infected areas, fewer than 2 percent of ticks carry the bacteria.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever first appeared on the department’s radar in 2002. Since then, the number of reported cases in the state has steadily increased, with 23 cases reported in 2009 and 52 cases in 2011. The disease caused one known death in 2009 and five deaths in 2011.

Some of the areas in Arizona most affected by the disease have been on American Indian reservations, with fewer resources to eradicate ticks and control free-roaming animals, said Jennifer McQuiston, the epidemiology activity lead for the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most cases occur between spring and fall, but Arizona’s mild winters allow ticks to survive year-round in many areas.

“Arizona is unique in the sense that we have such a long outdoor season,” Humble

said. “It starts earlier and ends later.”

Symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever initially are similar to those of a severe case of the flu, which makes it difficult for doctors to differentiate it from other diseases, said McQuiston. Characteristic symptoms in the first few days include fever, severe headache, nausea and muscle pain.

A couple days after those, flu-like symptoms appear, some people will develop a spotted rash that begins on the ankles and wrists and spreads to the middle of the body.

“We recommend you don’t wait for that rash,” McQuiston said. “Early treatment is key to surviving this disease. If antibiotics are started within the first five days after infection occurs, most people survive.”

Keeping ticks away is the surest prevention. Officials suggest wearing light-colored clothing when hiking or camping to make spotting ticks easier, as well as wearing long-sleeved shirts and tucking pants into socks.

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