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More in Finland should get TBE vaccine, tick disease expert says

Tick borne encephalitis jabs are included in the national vaccine programme only in the municipality of Pargas.

File photo of health care worker administering TBE vaccine. Image: Petri Puskala / Yle

The areas in Finland which provide mandatory tick borne encephalitis (TBE) vaccinations should be expanded to a larger area of the country, according to professor of internal medicine and tick expert Jarmo Oksi. TBE is an acute viral disease which can damage the central nervous system.

The Turku University professor and chief physician at Turku University Hospital studies tick-related illnesses and also cares for patients who have fallen ill after being bitten by the tiny, blood-sucking arachnids.

Oksi said he encourages parents and their children who visit areas with an elevated transmission risk to make sure they get the vaccine.

"You should also take the TBE vaccine if you live in the risk areas and if you spend a lot of time outdoors in nature, especially if you find ticks on you," Oksi said.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, TBE is transmitted by disease-carrying ticks found in forested areas.

Apart from entirely avoiding the outdoors and the danger that ticks pose, a TBE vaccination is the only safeguard against contracting the illness.

A TBE infection is marked by fever, headache and other symptoms, but the second stage of the disease affects the patient's neurological system with symptoms similar to meningitis, which is an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membrane or encephalitis, inflammation of the brain itself.

TBE rare but carries serious possible consequences

TBE is rare, even in higher risk zones, however. In areas with elevated TBE levels, up to one percent of tick populations carry the virus.

There are rough estimates that one in 10,000 people infected by the virus are stricken with encephalitis.

However, Oksi said that even a mild inflammation of the brain can have severe consequences in children.

"If it has spread to the brain for some time, the consequences are difficult to predict. The illness can pose problems for childrens' learning and concentration skills. Later on, for example, it can affect a person's future career choices," he said.

The National Institute for Health and Welfare THL has advised residents and visitors who head out into forests and fields in areas that have TBE infection rates of more than 5 per 100,000 to get the TBE vaccine.

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Jarmo Oksi. Image: Minna Rosvall / Yle

The only area in Finland that currently includes the TBE vaccine as part of the national vaccination programme is the island municipality of Pargas, off the south-west coast in the Archipelago Sea. Pargas offers the vaccine to individuals over the age of three.

The nearby Archipelago community, Kustavi, may be the next region to be classified as a TBE risk area that will begin offering the vaccines as part of the national programme.

But Oksi said that due to the potential risks of the disease, Finland should expand the country's TBE risk zones even more.

However, offering the vaccine as part of the national programme to a broader segment of the public would increase costs.

Most of those who live in rural areas with elevated risks know that TBE jabs are important, but it appears that others in more urban settings are less aware about the dangers ticks can pose.

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File photo of a tick. Image: Artyom Geodakyan / AOP

Yle visited the city of Turku's Kupittaa Park, where many families were out on a sunny day, but could only find one parent who said her family had received the TBE vaccine. The park is about a half an hour's drive from Pargas.

Another parent, Turku resident Elina, was at the park with her baby and toddler, and said she has considered getting the jab for her family but hasn't done it yet.

"It just somehow never happened, we haven't said 'OK, let's go," Elina said.

Another mother, Mira Väyrynen, was with her three year old son and said neither of them had been vaccinated against TBE.

"We haven't thought it would be that necessary. We don't go out into nature all that much or head out into the Archipelago. If we did it would be needed more, but not here in the city area," she said.

Yle asked Väyrynen whether she thinks ticks could be found in Turku's parks.

"I hope not," she replied.

However, ticks have been found in the city parks of Turku - as well as much farther east in the city of Espoo.