Lots of people will be aware of the danger of ticks in the UK transmitting Lyme disease, but what are the risks in other European countries? While Lyme disease is the most common disease spread by ticks in the Northern Hemisphere, these tiny arachnids can also carry a deadly viral infection called tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). While TBE does not occur in the UK, it is endemic in some European countries popular with hillwalkers including Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Poland and Sweden.
TBE is a debilitating infection of the central nervous system that can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and meningitis. Spread through the bite of an infected tick, symptoms can range from fevers, headaches and nausea to, in some cases, convulsions and paralysis. Conversely to Lyme disease though, which can be treated with antibiotics, there is no specific treatment for TBE.
“Tick-borne encephalitis is a relatively unknown disease that can have truly devastating consequences,” says Ava Easton, Chief Executive of The Encephalitis Society. “It is vital that anyone planning to spend time outdoors in these endemic European countries speak to their healthcare professional and take measures to help protect themselves from this disease.”
Ticks hide in long grass waiting for a host to brush past that they can attach themselves to. If walking in a tick-endemic area, especially where there is thick or high vegetation, the best preventative measure against getting bitten is to cover up and wear long sleeve tops and long trousers tucked into socks. It is also recommended to use insect repellent on your clothing and regularly check for ticks in areas such as your armpits, hairline, under the knee, groin and bottom. Always remove a tick with care as soon as it is discovered using a fine-tipped pair of tweezers or a specific tick removal tool.
There are vaccines available that can help to protect against TBE, and so it is advisable to speak to your healthcare professional at least four weeks ahead of your holiday.
The risk of catching TBE is most prevalent during the warmer months when ticks are most active from spring through to autumn, so if you are planning on a hillwalking holiday this year it’s important to know if the area is affected by ticks and TBE. Visit www.tickalert.org for more information on areas that are affected.