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13 Nov 2019, Edition - 1583, Wednesday

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Columns

These miniscule forest monsters can turn you nuts

Uma Ram

After almost 20 days of continuous headache that never ceased with analgesics, pain balms and vapourising along with fatigue accompanied by nausea, I woke up with the headache though the body pains had vanished surprisingly. Suddenly my kids started yelling as they spotted a minute insect come out of my forearm, just the size of a mustard that I flushed down the gutter. Yes it was a tick, the supplement of trekking.

It was almost two weeks ago that I spotted a black mark on my forearm, but the dominating headaches suppressed its thoughts. Slowly it became bigger, but with zero pains or itching I least bothered about it as I mistook it as a blister from the hot oil splash a few days back. But last night it literally appeared like a black pimple, but as the severity of the headache took over the priority more than before, I ignored it. It was this morning when I woke up that my kids spotted the creature piercing out of my skin. But if they hadn’t seen it I would have never known as I felt numb.

It was then that I recollected one of my husband’s CCF’s wife, who suffered from similar longer term headache, reddened eyes, bull’s eye rashes with flu like symptoms and finally was diagnosed with a tick inside her eyes. Another forest official’s daughter developed severe migraine, blurred vision and developed rashes all over her body due to tick bites. Though it may sound weird it is a common health ailment of trekkers, forest related professionals and their family members.

Memories are still afresh of 2001 while at Parambikulam when my friend Anu and myself yelled on seeing my husband and his friend – her husband another CCF Kerala, with a grey patch on their off white track suits on the hind part of the legs. Yes during their morning walk inside the forests they had stuck to the sides of the road paving way to the tourist vehicles when these creatures grabbed on to their dress like a grey patch. Must be hundreds of them over there. They came through the rear entrance after immersing the dress in boiling water with sanitisers and bathing in the backyard with steaming hot sanitised water.

Ticks – these minute bug-like insects vary in sizes and distribution ranging from almost three-fourth the size of a coin (cattle and dog) ticks to minute louse-sized (deer ticks) and spread almost similar diseases.

Though many minor ailments prevail with tick bites, the major is Lyme’s disease, a bacterial infection caused by the black-legged or deer tick, with classic symptoms of bull’s eye rash, severe headaches, muscle aches, irritability, anger, fatigue with fever similar to common flu. So it is hard to diagnose whether it is a tick infection or ordinary flu. Symptoms show up from three-thirty after days after the entry as the person is totally unaware of the bite except for the characteristic bull’s eye rash post exit from the host due to the cement like acidic fluids they secrete while sucking blood.

Kyasanur forest disease (KFD), as the name indicates, was first diagnosed in the Kyasanur Forests of Karnataka in 1957. It is a viral infection caused by the vector, Haemaphysalis spinigera, a forest tick. Humans contract infection from the bite of nymphs of the tick, that pierce into the skin, suck out the blood, metamorphosise inside the host till the adult stage and finally pierce out once they become fully grown adults. With fatality rate of 3-10 per cent, the symptoms of this disease include a high fever with frontal headaches, followed by haemorrhagic symptoms, such as bleeding from the nasal cavity, throat and gums, as well as gastrointestinal bleeding. Other symptoms include vomiting, muscle stiffness, tremors, absent reflexes and mental disturbances. Chronic conditions lead to arthritis, peripheral neuropathy and/or encephalomyelitis and even paralysis of face or body.

An affected person may recover in two weeks, but the convalescent period is typically very long, lasting for several months. There will be muscle aches and weakness during this period and the affected person is unable to engage in physical activities.

Deforestation lets loose these parasitic monsters that can even invade the human brain leading to dementia and other memory disorders. Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is a viral infectious disease involving the central nervous system. The disease most often manifests as meningitis, encephalitis or meningoencephalitis.

As for the Powassan virus, there have been just 75 confirmed cases in the US from 2006 to 2015. But 10 per cent have led to death. Another 50 per cent have led to permanent disability. The worst is if the treated with antibiotics these larvae might die inside the human body blocking capillaries leading to even heart ailments and paralysis.

Here are few preventive measures to stay safe:

*Wearing light coloured clothes to spot them tucked inside knee length muckers or fishing boots.

*Usage of repellents with DEET on skin and clothing. Forest field staff apply tobacco powder or pain balms on their body and clothing to avoid ticks.

*Permethrin on clothes kills ticks

*Alertness while inside forests – slightest prick just check out the reason for there might be even poisonous insects, thorns or even small reptiles apart from ticks.

*Avoid dense vegetation and use designated trekking trails.

*Avoid tick-infested places

*If you are a trekker keep vigil of your body checking tick prone zones like hair, neck, inside and rear side of ears, groins, armpits, behind knees and belly button too.

*Dry clothes in high heat dryers as many escape even washing machines.

*If you spot a tick, use tweezers to pull them out and ensure to destroy them immediately.

Whatever might be the precautions taken the safest is to avoid intrusion inside forests unless necessity calls for. While returning ensure to sanitise yourself and your clothes in hot water preferably outdoors prior to entry indoors so that your loved ones stay safe.

But I perceive these creatures as nature’s defensive mechanism to prevent human intrusion into forests: the minute warriors sent out to keep away humans.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own.

(The author of the column is Uma Ram, freelance writer from Coimbatore)

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