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Tiny Hitchhikers Can Cause Big Problems

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

23 June 2008 - Veterinarians are being reminded to be on the look out for fleas and ticks that could pose health risks to both animals and humans at the annual New Zealand Veterinary Association conference this week.

Dr Allen Heath, a parasitologist at AgResearch, says record numbers of tourists arriving in New Zealand and an increase in the number of companion animals being imported, has increased the likelihood of ticks and fleas hitching a ride.

"We have over 4,000,000 human passengers and more than 4,000 dogs coming in and out of the country each year, all of them potential transporters of ticks and fleas.

"Cats and dogs are less of a threat because they are subject to strict import health standards, although ticks still do get past the border from time to time, but there are none of those controls for humans, who can easily transport ticks and fleas and not know about it." Dr Heath has been carrying out a risk analysis to determine 'what we've got here, what we've encountered and what we might encounter' and the impact fleas and ticks could have on our economy.

"The analysis has highlighted the need for what we call passive surveillance, making the public aware and willing to submit relevant specimens. Ideally, we'd like information on immigration cards and posters in airports, warning people to keep an eye out for fleas and ticks."

He says new incursions of fleas are not picked up as often as ticks, possibly because they are so small and have a familiarity about them, so are ignored.

"It is not just the flea that causes the dog to itch that is the problem; there are in fact about 250 species of fleas out of the 3000 species worldwide that can transmit plague. Anything living on rodents could happily adjust to life in New Zealand and plague would definitely have an impact on humans."

Over the last 50 years there have been over 100 instances of ticks being picked up at the border and Dr Heath says that could be just a small part of the iceberg.

"There must be ticks arriving that we're not aware of. It really becomes a numbers game and eventually there is the risk that something will slip through."

Ticks are more likely to be vectors for disease, and could potentially affect our livestock, although fleas too carry diseases other than plague.

"Many of the ticks that come in on dogs could live in sheep and cows and could definitely have an impact on our farming industry. The brown dog-tick, which is commonly encountered at the border, would be a major problem for dogs"

Dr Heath says the NZVA conference is the ideal opportunity to remind vets to be vigilant in recognising and collecting ticks and fleas.

"We need veterinarians to be educated, interested and aware of the possibility of different fleas and ticks being present every time they get a cat or dog in. I'll be reminding them to send any ticks or fleas to me. "

He says members of the public are also welcome to send him their findings.

"The best way to send them is alive in a non-crushable container and post them to me at AgResearch, PO Box 40063, Upper Hutt.

"I always get back to anyone who sends in a sample, to let them know if we've found anything relevant and to maintain their interest."

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