Not only are ticks on your dog a major nuisance.

Now they might even be deadly.

For the first time, the brown dog tick, common throughout the arid Southwest, has been found to carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Previously, only ticks that lived in wetter climates were believed to carry the disease.

A recent outbreak that was centered in Navajo County — which borders Coconino County to the east — sent 16 people to the hospital and killed two.

As a result, county, state and federal disease specialists are likely to begin testing dogs in animal shelters, fitting thousands of dogs with tick collars and knocking on doors in rural parts of Coconino County along with Yavapai County to the south and three other counties in the southeast part of the state.

Using $50,000 allocated by Gov. Napolitano from the state's health crisis fund, they plan to get the word out about a Rocky Mountain spotted fever outbreak that they only expect to increase.

CASES USED TO BE RARE

For years, Rocky Mountain spotted fever was a little-known disease characterized by a spotted rash that happened elsewhere: the eastern and central United States, at the rate of a few hundred cases a year.

But nationwide, that rate quadrupled between 1998 and last year. Health officials were baffled until the recent completion of a study into its cause.

"I've been in this job for 22 years, and I've never seen this," said Craig Levy, program manager for Arizona's vector-borne disease program. His agency, the Arizona Department of Health Services, reported only three cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever between 1981 and 2001. Generally when they did see a case, it was more travel-related, he said.

The 16 cases spanned 2002 to 2004, and the state has gotten no reports of any cases so far in 2005. But Levy said the outbreak is unlikely to be over.

"What's happening in Arizona is a recent and increasing event," he said.

The study, led by officials from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published Aug. 11 in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed a previously unsuspected culprit in the spread of the serious and sometimes fatal disease: the brown dog tick, long known to prey on dogs and other mammals in the desert southwest, but never before known to harbor the bacteria that cause the fever.

Arizona has never been a hotbed for Rocky Mountain spotted fever mostly because the two common carriers: the American dog tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick, don't do well in arid environments.

The brown dog tick is a different story. Not only can it survive in the low-brush, red-rock landscapes that characterize places like Sedona and the stretch between Flagstaff and Page — its numbers are showing a sharp rise.

STRAY DOGS BEING INFESTED

Stray dogs in areas where they're allowed to roam and aren't well cared for are beginning to experience unprecedented infestations of the ticks. Each of the 16 people who contracted the fever, 13 of them in Navajo County where 66 percent of the land belongs to the Navajo Nation, were living near such dogs.

The CDC maintains strict confidentiality laws, and even in the published study there's no mention of the specific location of the outbreak. The study reports that most of the cases occurred in a rural community of about 2,148 people and a smaller number of cases occurred in a community about 50 miles away with roughly 10,000 people. Levy would say only that the outbreak was centered in Navajo County with one case each in Gila and Graham counties.

Navajo County's director of public health services, Wade Kartchner, said the cases were centered in the extreme southern end of the county — which rules out the Navajo Nation — and were not within the jurisdiction of the county government. The only city in the county with close to 10,000 people is Winslow

But Levy said the findings should serve as a red flag for areas in and beyond Arizona that share conditions with the affected areas: most importantly, stray dogs.

"It's a worldwide tick; it's all over the place," he said. "But in areas where the dogs are restrained and cared for, it's not likely to spread. We don't think the outbreak is going to be all over the place."

Though the bacteria that causes the disease is spread solely by ticks — and not from person to person — Kartchner said the confidentiality is being maintained partly to thwart "prejudicial" reaction to the communities that suffered the outbreak. Levy said the rule has been made so strict by the CDC, he feared losing his job if he broke it.

Symptoms and treatment

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is marked by a fever of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, lethargy, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Sometimes the telltale rash takes several days longer to develop, and consists of spots and bumps on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, which spread inward from the extremities. Over time, the rash can take on a bruised appearance from broken capillaries. But by then, the treatment outlook has plummeted.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be arrested early with specific antibiotics, particularly one called doxycycline. But treatment delays open the door for death by multiple organ failure - as has occurred even recently when doctors mistook the fever for various ailments including thrush, viral infection and pneumonia, according to a May 2004 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Don't get 'ticked' off

· Wear light-colored clothes so ticks are more visible, tuck pants legs into your socks and use insect repellents on skin, clothes and boots.

· Check for ticks after being outdoors, especially at waistlines and anywhere hair grows. Parents should check children's hair and scalps.

· To remove a tick, grasp it close to the skin and pull up with steady pressure without twisting or jerking. Disinfect the skin and wash your hands.

· Save the tick so it can be identified if you later become ill. Seal it in a plastic bag, note the date, and put it in your freezer.

· Care for dogs by keeping them leashed or fenced and groomed, and use preventive tick treatment such as a collar.

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