With Memorial Day marking when outdoor activities heat up, Chester County health officials are reminding residents that summer is not only a time for nature walks and fishing trips.

May, June and July are the most active months for deer tick to transmit Lyme disease. And with May designated as Lyme Disease Prevention Month, an annual event sponsored by the American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF), officials report that Chester County has seen a steady growth in Lyme disease cases in recent years.

Katie Kuffner, a public health educator with the Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Division of the Chester County Health Department, says that Chester County has the highest number of Lyme disease cases out of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

In 2003, 908 confirmed cases of Lyme Disease were reported in Chester County, making last year the worst ever in the County's history, Kuffner said in a recent interview.

She and others said that prevention is the key to protecting yourself this sometimes long and painful disease, and counsel that now is the right time to become educated about Lyme disease to reduce your chances of getting a tick bite this summer.

"Prevention is key," Kuffner stated. Experts agree that in order to properly protect yourself and reduce the chances of being bit you must acquaint yourself with the tick and its life cycle.

Ticks are responsible for transmitting 11 different diseases to humans including Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever as well as several newly identified diseases, Babesiosis and Ehrlichiosis.

Kuffner warned that "while the warm weather months (April-October) age generally considered 'tick season,' county health officials warn the Lyme disease cases are reported here all year round including wintertime."

Ticks can be active any time that the temperature is above about 40 degrees. The biggest culprits of Lyme disease transmission are the ticks in the nymph stage of life. They are emerge from dormancy in May, peak in June and taper off in activity in August and September.

Particular environments harbor more ticks than others. By avoiding tick-infested areas and becoming aware of potential high tick areas in your own yard, you can reduce your own chances of a tick bite.

Researchers at Penn State stated that, "ticks thrive in a different type of environment, mainly wooded, brushy and grassy places."

It is especially important for homeowners to keep up yard maintenance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. "In the Eastern United States, most transmission of Lyme disease takes place near the home," said the agency, with ticks waiting under leaf litter or plant stems, leaf tips and blades of grass within about three feet of the ground.

The Penn State researchers concluded that "for homeowners exposure to ticks is greatest in the woods and garden fringe areas of their properties." Since most new homes are built in wooded areas, the transmission of Lyme disease has become an important problem in some areas of the United States like right here.

Kuffner stated, "The number of cases has been increasing partly due to better diagnosis of cases. Also, more construction and developments are being built in tick habitats, deer and mice are now closer to properties and humans." Mice are the number one carrier of the deer tick.

Homeowners should take steps to help reduce the tick population near their homes. The Department of Health recommends removing leaf litter and clearing tall grass and brush around houses and the edges of the lawn.

Homeowners may also choose to apply acaricides (chemicals toxic to ticks) to gardens, lawns and the edge of woodlands. There remain questions regarding the effectiveness and environmental safety with acaricides and a licensed pest control professional should always be consulted first.

Additionally, experts at the Department of Health and Human Services stated, "A relationship appears to exist between the abundance of deer and Ixodes ticks (deer ticks) in the Eastern United States." They continued, "Reducing and managing deer populations in geographic areas where Lyme disease occurs can reduce tick abundance."

In addition to eliminating tick environments from your home and avoiding tick infested areas there are steps for personal protection.

Kuffner emphasized, "Lyme Disease is a preventable disease if people take action to protect themselves."

If you do find a tick there is a procedure to remove the tick. Kuffner stated, "Proper removal is essential. Applying Vaseline, alcohol and hot matches only increases your risk of the irritated tick transmitting the bacteria; therefore, these 'loosening' techniques are to be avoided."

To properly remove a tick use clean, fine point tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently but firmly pull it straight out.

If you develop Lyme Disease symptoms seek treatment immediately. Kuffner added, "It is important to remember that you can get Lyme Disease more than once. Prevention is the key to avoiding tick bites."

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