The tiny Western Black-Legged tick, already blamed for making people sick, is spreading a new and little-known bacteria similar to the germ that causes Lyme disease, causing concern among health officials.
The new strain has been found in ticks in 19 of California's counties, according to the state Department of Public Health. Symptoms of the disease are similar to Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, according to the state.
The new bacteria can cause fatigue, headache and a fever that is higher than found with Lyme disease. It is also a relapsing disease, in which symptoms go away, but reappear weeks or months later. The new strain hasn't been named yet.
The actual disease hasn't been found in California, but it could be because no one has been looking for the bacteria in sick people, said John Albright, a biologist with the Shasta, Calif., Mosquito and Vector Control District.
"It's one of those things, if you're not looking for it, you're not going to find it," he said.
To find the actual ticks, teams from the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District drag a cloth attached to a stick through tall weeds hoping a tick will latch on.
On Wednesday, it took only about a minute for a tick to grab onto cloths used by district employees Geoff Taylor, a vector control technician, and Kendra Angel-Adkinson, assistant vector ecologist.
The ticks are sent to a lab and tested for pathogens, Albright said. Testing for the new bacteria is currently only available in research laboratories, according to the state.
It was the state public health department that first detected the new bacteria in ticks in Shasta County, during a statewide testing program it conducted from 2000 to 2011.
During that time, the state tested 28,735 ticks in both the adult and nymph stages. Of those, 54 had the new bacteria and 97 had the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, according to public health.
Bacteria were found in another 174 adult and nymph ticks, but state officials did not know whether they had the Lyme disease bacteria or the new strain.
The germ was first reported in Japan in 1995. There have been 46 cases in Russia and 18 cases in the eastern U.S.
An 80-year-old woman from New Jersey with a compromised immune developed signs of dementia and may also have suffered swelling of the brain and the lining of the brain after being infected with the disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The symptoms of the disease can be treated with penicillin, doxycycline and amoxicillin, the report says. One researcher noted in the article that the disease is likely to become more common, with up to 5,000 cases a year being reported, compared with up to 30,000 cases a year of Lyme disease.
Other than avoiding being bitten by a tick, Albright said there is little people can do to prevent catching the disease.
He recommended people watch for ticks on their clothing or pets after being outdoors. People should also use insect repellent with DEET to ward off ticks, he said.
(Contact reporter Damon Arthur at firstname.lastname@example.org)