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For some reason when I'm discussing country life with friends and relatives, the subject of disease comes up a lot.  The reason might go back to 1993 when the Hantavirus infection made the news and caused hysteria. (OK, the reporters were the only ones hysterical and for them, spreading hysteria is part of their job description. I digress.)

Lyme Disease

In our area of Southern California, Lyme Disease has not taken hold like it has in other parts of the country. Our deer population is small compared to the northeast and upper mid-west and the disease is of course, spread by the deer tick. It is currently spreading inland from the upper east coast and upper midwest and in upper northern California and the Oregon coast. We recently had a tick tested by the Department of Health in San Diego county. The test was negative and they were reasonably confident that Lyme disease is not yet a great concern in our area.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a spirochete that is transmitted from ticks to humans and animals. It can be treated successfully with antibiotics though the challenge is early diagnosis. The blood test is unreliable and the symptoms ambiguous. The most described symptoms are a red rash (especially surrounding the tick bite), flu-like symptoms, or joint pains in the first month following any deer tick bite.

The more severe symptoms of may occur weeks, months, or, in a few cases, years after a tick bite. These can include severe headaches, painful arthritis and swelling of joints, cardiac abnormalities, and central nervous system infections leading to cognitive (mental) disorders.  Jordan Fisher Smith, a park ranger in the Sierras, suffered these severe symptoms which he describes in his book Nature Noir.

Early detection and removal of ticks seems to be the key in avoiding this disease.   Studies have shown that an infected tick normally cannot begin transmitting the spirochete until it has been attached to its host about 36-48 hours.

When I grew up we were told to never pull out a tick and instead use hot matches or alcohol to get it to release its grip. Those suggestions never worked and we always resorted to just pulling the thing out. Here is the current accepted method for tick removal.

bulletUsing a pair of pointed precision* tweezers, grasp the tick by the head or mouthparts right where they enter the skin. DO NOT grasp the tick by the body.
bulletWithout jerking, pull firmly and steadily directly outward. DO NOT twist the tick out or apply petroleum jelly, a hot match, alcohol or any other irritant to the tick in an attempt to get it to back out. These methods can backfire and even increase the chances of the tick transmitting the disease.
bulletPlace the tick in a vial or jar of alcohol to kill it.
bulletClean the bite wound with disinfectant.


Hantavirus is the disease that concerned me the most because we have millions of deer mice on the property and they can carry the disease.  Been doing some reading and I guess I can relax a little. The disease is really rare and I couldn't find any recent reports of outbreaks in the US.

The other good news, to me anyway, is that the disease is only viable in the environment for 2 to 3 days. Air and sunlight kill it. Yay. That fact tells me an important step in the sequence of my anti-Hantavirus program on the ranch.  Get rid of the deer mice first, then do the clean up. After the mice are gone, if you air out the infested area for a couple of days, your infection risk is way down.

Hantavirus is transmitted by deer mice through urine, droppings and saliva. Humans contract the disease when they breathe in the virus, not by getting bit or from mouse fleas or ticks.

I've already touched on how to control the disease and it involves using common sense to control the rodent population.  Seal up all all entries and passages into your structure.  This is a huge chore as these mice can fit through amazingly small holes. They have been known to go through holes as small as a dime.

Use traps and keep them set even if you think you've won the battle. Poison is an option of last resort but you always have the possibility that the mouse will die somewhere in the house. See my discussion on our Mice page.

The last step is to clean up all areas that have mouse dropping or urine stain. Don't use a vacuum as that gets the dust airborne. The Center for Infectious Disease recommends that you spray the areas with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water then wipe and mop. Of course use latex gloves and a Half-mask respirator with HEPA filter. Those flimsy little white masks you get at the hardware store just don't do it for me.

Squirrels and the Plague

Bubonic Plague is not something that I would normally associate with rural life and I actually thought it was more or less eradicated like Small Pox or Polio. A few years ago I became aware that it was still on the scene when I heard that the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park was quarantining some camp sites. A squirrel was infected and they had to instigate a comprehensive trapping program. An estimated 10 to 20 Americans contract plague each year and since Cuyamaca park is only a mile away, my curiosity was peaked.

Of course most people know of the Black Plague from its effects in Europe in the middle ages.  It spread from fleas on rats and infected towns and cities. It came to the United States in 1900 through San Francisco on a ship from Asia. Once again, deer mice became the primary carrier because they were resistant to the disease but carried the fleas.  Today, ground squirrels are a big concern because they are not resistant and the disease can wipe out huge numbers of their colonies. When the squirrels die, the fleas move on to human hosts.

Currently our valley is over run by colonies of squirrels probably due to a lack of predators.  Though I'm using live traps to relocate them, that really doesn't solve the problem. At this point I don't see any recourse but using poison.



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