Background: Ixodes ricinus is the main vector in Europe of human-pathogenic Lyme borreliosis (LB) spirochaetes, the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) and other pathogens of humans and domesticated mammals. The results of a previous 1994 questionnaire, directed at people living in Central and North Sweden (Svealand and Norrland) and aiming to gather information about tick exposure for humans and domestic animals, suggested that Ixodes ricinus ticks had become more widespread in Central Sweden and the southern part of North Sweden from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. To investigate whether the expansion of the tick's northern geographical range and the increasing abundance of ticks in Sweden were still occurring, in 2009 we performed a follow-up survey 16 years after the initial study.
Methods: A questionnaire similar to the one used in the 1994 study was published in Swedish magazines aimed at dog owners, home owners, and hunters. The questionnaire was published together with a popular science article about the tick's biology and role as a pathogen vector in Sweden. The magazines were selected to get information from people familiar with ticks and who spend time in areas where ticks might be present.
Results: Analyses of data from both surveys revealed that during the near 30-year period from the early 1980s to 2008, I. ricinus has expanded its distribution range northwards. In the early 1990s ticks were found in new areas along the northern coastline of the Baltic Sea, while in the 2009 study, ticks were reported for the first time from many locations in North Sweden. This included locations as far north as 66°N and places in the interior part of North Sweden. During this 16-year period the tick's range in Sweden was estimated to have increased by 9.9%. Most of the range expansion occurred in North Sweden (north of 60°N) where the tick's coverage area doubled from 12.5% in the early 1990s to 26.8% in 2008. Moreover, according to the respondents, the abundance of ticks had increased markedly in LB- and TBE-endemic areas in South (Götaland) and Central Sweden.
Conclusions: The results suggest that I. ricinus has expanded its range in North Sweden and has become distinctly more abundant in Central and South Sweden during the last three decades. However, in the northern mountain region I. ricinus is still absent. The increased abundance of the tick can be explained by two main factors: First, the high availability of large numbers of important tick maintenance hosts, i.e., cervids, particularly roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) during the last three decades. Second, a warmer climate with milder winters and a prolonged growing season that permits greater survival and proliferation over a larger geographical area of both the tick itself and deer. High reproductive potential of roe deer, high tick infestation rate and the tendency of roe deer to disperse great distances may explain the range expansion of I. ricinus and particularly the appearance of new TBEV foci far away from old TBEV-endemic localities. The geographical presence of LB in Sweden corresponds to the distribution of I. ricinus. Thus, LB is now an emerging disease risk in many parts of North Sweden. Unless countermeasures are undertaken to keep the deer populations, particularly C. capreolus and Dama dama, at the relatively low levels that prevailed before the late 1970s--especially in and around urban areas where human population density is high--by e.g. reduced hunting of red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and lynx (Lynx lynx), the incidences of human LB and TBE are expected to continue to be high or even to increase in Sweden in coming decades.