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Domestic ticks now carry even more pathogens

Researchers from the University of Turku have discovered that ticks found in Finland are also transmitters of other pathogens, causing additional illnesses beyond the already familiar Lyme disease and encephalitis.

Turun yliopiston tutkijat etsivät puutiaisia keräilylakanalta, kuvasa lippalakki päässä korkakouluharjoittelija Markus Weckström, seisomassa Saaristomeren tutkkimuslaitoksne asemanjohtaja Jari Hänninen ja kyykyssä Turun yliopiston eläinmuseon johtaja Ilari Sääksjärvi.
Image: Yle / Markku Sandell

Turku University researchers have discovered additional dangerous bacteria on ticks found in southwest Finland. In addition to the already-familiar Borrellia bacteria behind Lyme disease and the virus that causes TBE encephalitis, the scientists also found traces of Rikettsia and Anaplasma bacteria never observed before in Finland.

The two new strains of bacteria are however familiar. Jari Hänninen of the University of Turku’s Archipelago Research Institute says the find didn’t come unexpected, as the bacteria were already found in several of Finland’s neighbouring countries.

“One of the Rikettsia diseases is typhus, an epidemic of which brought Napoleon’s army to its knees,” he says.

Rikettsia is transmitted to humans via external parasites like lice, fleas or ticks and are the pathogen responsible for typhus and spotted fever.

First time sighting in Finland

Until now, no reports of illnesses that can be traced to the newly-discovered bacteria have been reported in Finland, even though they have been observed earlier in Sweden and Estonia. On the other hand, it could be that there have been cases that were misdiagnosed as Lyme disease. Seven different strains of borreliosis have been identified in Finland, each of which causes varying symptoms.

All Lyme disease cases are treated with aggressive antibiotics, without necessarily determining which specific bacterium is to blame.

Research into the subject consistently provides new data on tick-borne bacteria and viruses and the illnesses that can result from them. 

“The amount of information is growing the entire time. We know what pathogens are out there and we can prepare ourselves better,” says Hänninen.

Ticks growing more and more dangerous

Anaplasma bacteria on the other hand can lead to a disease named anaplasmosis, which damages red blood cells. It was first encountered as cattle fever in Finnish livestock in the early 1960s. The first human contagions were observed elsewhere in Europe in the 1990s, and cases of granulocytic anaplasmosis have grown significantly in recent years in North America.

The outbreak of this disease sets in two weeks after infection, causing headaches, muscle pain, nausea, gastrointestinal symptoms and respiratory problems in some cases.

University of Turku researcher Jukka Hytönen says tick and mite-borne infections benefit from an increasingly warmer and wetter climate. As the host animals’ range expands north, so does the reach of parasites.

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