AUTHORITIES are blaming South-East Queensland's warm winter for the surge in tick bites that have recently put a Gympie father and a teenager in hospital, and almost cost a Mary St solicitor his life.
Fitness enthusiast Ripley Perkins, 41, was on the brink of organ shutdown when he was finally diagnosed with rickettsia, tick-transmitted bacteria also known as Queensland tick typhus or tick bite fever, in Nambour Hospital in June.
By the time Ripley was diagnosed, a full week after being admitted to Gympie Hospital with a mystery "virus", he had lost 14kgs, was in isolation with suspected meningococcal disease, and on continuous intravenous fluids and oxygen.
His blood pressure, heart rate and fever were all at dangerous levels, and he was in a delirium, seeing visions of dead friends.
Once the correct diagnosis was made and treatment began, it was a month before Ripley could return to work (and then only part-time), and three months before he was back training on his mountain bike.
He now knows he was bitten by a tick, most probably at his East Deep Creek home, though the tick had fallen off, leaving two bite marks and some swelling.
It was only the sharp eyes of the Nambour infectious diseases' officer that finally identified the deadly symptoms of rickettsia.
A Pomona resident who works in Gympie was bitten by a tick several months ago and sent his blood to the United States to be tested for lyme disease when Australian treatments failed to improve his ailing health. He tested positive to the condition despite it being officially non-existent in Australia.
Just over a week ago, Calico Creek landowner Ben Cameron, also in his early 40s, spent five nights on intravenous antibiotics in Gympie Private Hospital for an unspecified bacterial infection picked up from a tick.
Ben had discovered the tick just above his elbow the previous Thursday morning, and pulled it out, thinking nothing more of it.
"I've had heaps of them," he said. "But this year they do seem to be worse."
By the following night Ben's arm had puffed "to the size of my shoulder" and was "a bit sore". He went to the doctor the next day and was immediately put in hospital.
In September, Gympie State High School Year 12 student Ben Jones, 17, spent four nights in Gympie Hospital after picking up a tick while digging a veggie patch with his mum Tanya on their 10-acre Southside property.
The tick bit Ben just above the right knee. Tanya found it that night and pulled it out, but two days later the bite had turned red and swollen, and a day later it was the size of a tennis ball and quite painful.
Ben was admitted to hospital with "cellulitis", a different complication of tick bite, and watched in horror with the medical staff as the area around the bite continued to swell to the size of a football.
"I felt dizzy and it was very painful, and I started to get blurry sight," he said.
It took four nurses to hold Ben down while an intravenous line was put in his vein, "but the food in hospital was good" and the service so good that Ben and Tanya wrote a thank-you letter.
Ben said he had had "heaps" of ticks in the past, on his back and belly button, but he'd never had a reaction like this.
Sunshine Coast Local Medical Association president Dr Wayne Herdy said doctors had treated dozens of people for ticks recently and Gympie medical officer Dr Rod Day said his practice had treated at least two people a week for the last 12 months.
Ticks were "very, very prevalent", he said.
Dr Herdy said the real concern this year was that the little parasites were also much larger than normal.
"Because we've had a warmer winter than usual, we're seeing more ticks around than usual and they're large, juicy healthy ticks too," he said.
"They're not the tiny little ones we normally see at this time of the year.
"Some people are saying that the scrub ticks they're seeing are almost as big as the old cattle ticks.
"They're several millimetres across, sometimes up to half-a-centimetre or so."
Dr Day said most people were able to locate and remove any ticks on their body, but that the reaction from the toxin could persist and annoy them for up to three weeks.
Ticks live in bushland. They can attach to your skin when you're out in the bush and then feed on your blood for several days.
To deter ticks:
- Wear light-coloured clothing when out in the bush. Ticks will be much easier to see. Tuck trousers into socks and shirts into pants. Use an insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin on skin, shoes and socks.
- Children and pets should be examined for ticks after visiting bushland areas.
- When you get home, remove clothing and search carefully for ticks. Search especially behind the ears, the back of the head, neck, groin, armpits and back of the knees.
- If bitten, you may see an itchy crater-like swelling on the skin around the tick. Remove the tick with tweezers by grasping the head and rotating. Do not pull the tick by the body as this may make it release more toxin. Apply an antiseptic cream to the bite.
- Seek medical advice if you experience muscle weakness, paralysis or feel generally unwell after a tick bite.
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