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Science Pub aims to take the "ick" out of ticks

By Joe Garvey

If ticks have been bugging you, check out this month's Science Pub.

"Don't Be Outsmarted by a Tick: Understand the Risks of Ticks in Hampton Roads" is the topic for the Science Pub on Sept. 18 at Rip Rap Brewing Co., 116 East 25thSt., Norfolk.

Holly Gaff, an assistant associate professor in the biological sciences department, will conduct the session. Networking begins at 6 p.m., followed by trivia and talk at 6:30. If you arrive early, you'll receive a free beverage.

Gaff, who leads Old Dominion University's tick research team, got into the field after working with a team from Tennessee that published a study in the mid-1990s that showed the higher a person's golf score, the greater the risk of contracting a tick-borne disease.

She said there's been an uptick in the activity and prevalence of these critters in Virginia since about 2007, making them "a pretty significant health threat."

Hampton Roads faces two main threats and another on the horizon.

The most worrisome pest is the Lone Star tick, which Gaff said is "ubiquitous."

"It's very aggressive," she said. "They feed on humans in all three life stages, which is different than others. You're more likely to encounter them. They're aggressive; they chase you down." Gaff said 99 percent of the ticks her team collects are Lone Stars.

She said they carry a couple of pathogens and can expose people to a sugar molecule that can make them allergic to red meat.

"The thing that scares people most is this red-meat allergy," she said. "I can threaten you with death and you don't care, but if I take away your hamburger, boy, it's game on. It's amazing the traction in research that I've gotten because of this fear of dietary change."

The iInvading Gulf Coast tick poses another significant threat. It carries one of the more serious spotted fevers - Tidewater Spotted Fever, which was first diagnosed at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.

"That one can leave people miserable for a couple of weeks and in the ICU possibly," Gaff said. "It doesn't seem to kill you, which is good, but it can make you pretty miserable."

The looming threat is from Lyme Disease, which has been migrating through the state from Northern Virginia over the past decade.

"It's coming at us," said Gaff, who estimates that it will be in this area withinfive to 10 years. "Lyme Disease is moving down from the north, and a lot of these spotted fevers are coming up from the south. So we're in this mixing zone where we get the northern and southern tick-borne diseases."

What's a person to do? Gaff has a couple of suggestions.

She said a product called permethrin, which is available at most stores, "is a very powerful deterrent that kills the ticks." You spray it on your shoes and socks - because "ticks don't fall from trees; they have crossed your shoes and socks at some point" - and follow the instructions about letting it dry. Gaff stressed this product is not for direct use on skin.

She also urges that people approach reducing the risk the same way they do with other everyday activities.

"Tick-borne diseases, honestly, if you are vigilant about them, can be less dangerous than driving," she said. "You always fasten your seat belt; you always check for ticks. You make sure you have all the things in your car operating properly. Make sure you treat your clothes and your shoes. Because if you don't, you are putting yourself at risk."

Science Pubs provide an opportunity for the community to engage with ODU researchers in an informal setting. Next up: Tom Allen, professor of political science and geography, will talk about sea-level rise on Oct. 17 at Oozlefinch Brewing Co., 81 Patch Road, Hampton.

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