The death Tuesday of a La Crosse County resident from Rocky Mountain spotted fever was not just unlikely, but unheard of — at least in Wisconsin.
Rebecca Osborn, vector-borne disease epidemiologist for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said her department only hears of five to 10 cases a year. It's also fairly rare that the disease was actually picked up in Wisconsin. In most cases, doctors learned that the patient had traveled to areas farther south, where the disease is more prevalent. It’s assumed the disease was picked up out of state.
Rarer still are deaths from the disease. Most are successfully treated with antibiotics. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases are fatal.
Details surrounding the La Crosse County resident’s death have not been released. However, it's the first case of death by Rocky Mountain spotted fever ever in the state.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a tick-borne disease. Ticks are arachnids, not insects, which means they have eight legs and are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than beetles and bugs. Ticks will hang out in vegetation and wait for a passerby, and some have been shown to be attracted to nearby sources of heat and carbon dioxide.
Lyric Bartholomay, professor in UW-Madison’s Departments of Comparative Biomedical Sciences and Entomology, said that Rocky Mountain spotted fever is transmitted by dog ticks, also called wood ticks, that have long been ubiquitous across the state.
These are different ticks from the transmitters of Lyme disease, which are deer ticks, also called black-legged ticks. The upsurge of deer ticks, followed by an upsurge in Lyme disease, in the state over the past 20 years has drawn significant attention to ticks and tick prevention.
Dog ticks are usually just an everyday nuisance.
“One of the saving graces of sorts about Rocky Mountain spotted fever and transmission associated with dog ticks/wood ticks is those are really big ticks,” explained Bartholomay. “Most of the time if you get one of those ticks on you, you’ll find it.”
Osborn says Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be treated effectively if treatment is started within the first five days of illness. When that happens, it’s highly unlikely a person would die or even have serious complications.
Early symptoms include a fever, headache, nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain. The most famous symptom — and the namesake for the disease — is a spotted rash, which typically occurs two to four days after the onset of the fever symptoms.
Osborn cautioned that the absence of a rash should not lead to complacency. Much like Lyme disease’s bulls-eye rash, it’s a good telltale, but it doesn’t happen in all cases.
“Any person who has any of these symptoms that’s had a tick bite in the past 30 days should see their doctor,” Osborn said. “Or anyone who’s been in tick habitat … they can bite undetected.”
The best safeguard? Detailed examinations of yourself or someone with you who has been in an area that might have them.
“I hope people will still enjoy the Wisconsin outdoors," Bartholomay said. "The most important message is just to be vigilant and do tick checks.”
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