Russia, among the top three countries with the most Covid-19 cases as of June 14 data, is currently facing a new threat: a plague of ticks. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reports that swarms of blood-sucking ticks have hit several Siberian regions. The scale of the swarm has even left some hospitals without medications and vaccines as they are also stretched with the rising numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths.
Tatyana Redko, a resident of Krasnoyarsk--the third-largest city in Siberia--told the daily that she was even walking on a paved path when a tick bit her. Ticks are also everywhere, not just in the forests and parks, but even on the city streets. Reported tick bites in the Krasnoyarsk region, which extends from the north of Mongolia to the Arctic shore, are up 400% more than last year. What is more alarming is that the tick season is just starting.
1,925 people reported bites in the week of May 22 to 28, including 103 children. This adds up to the 3,169 cases of tick suction, including 766 cases among children, since the beginning of this season in the city of Krasnoyarsk alone.
Out of 61 administrative districts in the region, 57 have identified cases of ticks infected with encephalitis. The problem is also prevalent in other regions of Siberia, in other parts of western Russia, and the Russian Far East.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain and is often caused by a viral infection, many of which can be transmitted by ticks to humans. The inflammation can cause permanent damage or death without timely diagnosis and treatment.
The press service of Krasnoyarsk told RFE/RL that the region is “seeing a high level of activity of naturally occurring tick-borne infections.” The officials believe that the cause for why the region has significantly greater than average tick-borne infection cases is the unusually mild winter. They said that the weather conditions in the region enabled forest-dwelling rodents, main hosts for ticks, to survive the winter well. The numbers of forest-dwelling rodents in the Siberian region have grown and so the number of ticks correspondingly increased. This is why there has been an active outbreak of tick-borne encephalitis in the 2020 season.
In many parts of Siberia, ticks are a perennial problem, so locals have grown used to just purchase yearly tick insurance. Insurance company Rosgosstrakh sells such a policy, which guarantees treatment with immunoglobulin. There is evidence that intravenous immunoglobin has a beneficial role in the treatment of encephalitis. If the immunoglobin antibody is introduced to the body soon enough, often within three days, it can prevent encephalitis infection. However, many insurance policyholders say that they are turned away as there is a shortage of immunoglobin in the country this year.
Redko says that when her brother was bitten by a tick on a Friday evening, they could not find anyone to help them. So, her brother removed it himself and they started calling the ambulance, but they were directed to a clinic. When they dialed the number in their insurance policy, they were informed that there was no immunoglobulin available for them. Earlier, Redko’s aunt also faced the same problem and was administered an antiviral medication instead and an antihistamine. None of these treatments were even covered in the policy so she ended up paying $100 or 7,000 rubles out of pocket. Health officials also said there is no immunoglobin anywhere in Russia.
Krasnoyarsk nongovernmental charity’s head Tatyana Fyodorova said that her daughter was bitten by a tick on May 24 during their camping trip. The insurance company sent her to Santem, a local clinic. Fyodorova recalls that the manager of that clinic informed them that they didn’t have any immunoglobulin and wouldn’t have any for at least two months. This caused her to post an angry post on social media and it was noticed by some journalists.
Fyodorova continued to press the insurance company but the latter told her there is no immunoglobin in the country and was to blame herself for bringing her daughter to the forest. When Fyodorova was able to communicate with the regional management of the insurance company, she was informed that they already “found” some immunoglobulin for her daughter and it was injected in her on the same day.
The mother added that she was only able to achieve success in obtaining the medicine as she raised a “stink,” threatening to file a lawsuit and was in contact with the journalists in the country. She added that no one in their city knows that there is a lack of immunoglobin in the country but the insurance company is still selling such a policy. The situation only started appearing in the news after her daughter’s case. The Rosgosstrakh refused to accept calls for comment.
Average prices for an immunoglobin injection
As of 2017, the average price for an immunoglobin injection in the US amounted to $97. In the same year, the price of an immune globin injection averaged US$78 in South Africa, $51 in the United Arab Emirates, $41 in Germany, $33 in Switzerland, $27 in the United Kingdom, and $17 in the Netherlands.
In 2018, the demand for immunoglobin in the US grew by 9% while it was 12% in Germany, 10% in Australia, and 9% in Spain, according to database company Statista.
Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE): statistics
The World Health Organization shares that approximately 10,000 to 12,000 clinical cases of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) are reported every year but the figure may be significantly lower than in the total number of clinical cases. There is no direct person-to-person transmission but people come in contact with the ticks during outdoor activities, particularly in forested areas of up to an altitude of 2,000 meters.
The government has advised its citizens to wear protective clothing and use modern acaricidal repelling agents when traveling to summer cottages. The public should also pay attention to the presence of ticks on pets.
It will be a challenge for the country to win the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic and also small but dangerous ticks. Aside from focusing on the cost and availability of immunoglobin in the country, the government should also provide basic precautionary rules to protect everyone from the danger of tick attacks.