Ticks, tick-borne illness on the rise

The blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, can spread Lyme disease and other ailments.

OSWEGO — Warmer weather and limited options for recreation due to coronavirus-related closures have more people spending time outdoors, and public health experts are warning individuals to be on the lookout for ticks, which can carry illnesses such as Lyme disease.

There are several species of tick that carry a variety of tick-borne illnesses, including Anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Tick-borne diseases, of which Lyme disease is the most common, have become more prevalent across the state in recent years, with the number of cases of Lyme disease increasing from roughly 4,300 in 2000 to more than 9,800 in 2017, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).

State DOH Deputy Director of Communicable Disease Control Bryon Backenson said Lyme disease, which was initially thought of as a disease affecting Long Island and southeastern New York, has moved further north and further west over the past 20 years. Backenson described a “band between Syracuse and Rochester” as the leading edge of where Lyme disease is most prevalent, but noted it could be found everywhere in the state.

“You certainly find it east of that band more than you do west,” Backenson said, noting there are likely a variety of factors contributing to increasing tick populations, including a decrease in hunting, weather and climate and land use practices.

Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a PhD in entomology who leads the New York State Community Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program at Cornell University, said in the more than 20 years she’s worked with ticks the populations throughout New York have been on the rise.

“By all accounts,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said of the increase in tick populations. “It seems like ticks are getting much more dense, much worse and much more visible. Partly due to resurgence in wildlife, including deer.”

Caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, Lyme can cause fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches, painful arthritis, heart and central nervous system problems, skin rash, chills, neck stiffness and swollen glands. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most cases of Lyme disease can be successfully treated with a few weeks of antibiotics.

More than 100,000 cases of Lyme disease have been confirmed in New York State since 2002, according to DOH data. In Oswego County, the number of annual lab-confirmed cases of Lyme disease increased each year between 2014 and 2017, but dipped from 125 in 2017 to 90 in 2018.

Blacklegged, or deer, ticks are most prevalent between mid-May and July and again starting in October until the ground is covered in snow or the temperature consistently falls below 40 degrees.  

Between May and July is when newborn ticks, called nymphs, are highly active, according to Backenson, who said nymphs are the most likely to cause disease. Though adult ticks are more likely to carry disease, the larger, older ticks are also more likely to be noticed by humans.

Adult ticks are the size of a sesame seed, but the nymphs are about the size of a poppy seed.

“Even though the tick is more likely to be infected, we see very few cases of disease from adult ticks because people find the ticks and pull them off,” Backeson said. “And usually those ticks are also active when people are still wearing long sleeves and long pants.”

Recently hatched ticks do not carry disease and must feed on infected animals in order to pick up the viruses and bacteria that cause disease in humans. Ticks typically have three blood meals throughout their lifespan and can pick up diseases from any one of those meals.

Over the last four years, more than 20 percent of nymph blacklegged ticks collected by the DOH in Oswego County have carried the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. DOH data indicates more than 40 percent of the nymph ticks collected in 2018 and 2019 carried the bacteria.

More than half of the adult deer ticks collected by the DOH in recent years have carried the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that causes Lyme. The most recent data in 2018 and 2019 indicated 70 percent of adult deer ticks carried the bacteria.

Lyme disease is the tick-borne illness people tend to focus on, Backenson said, but there are a handful of rare, but still concerning diseases ticks carry, including Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Powasson virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

“Anaplasmosis is probably the fastest rising tick-borne disease we see in New York state,” Backenson said. “We have a real hotspot of it in the Capital District area and areas north of Albany.”

According to DOH data, there were 231 cases of Anaplasmosis in New York in 2010, and that number increased to more than 900 in 2018. Anaplasmosis can cause fever, headache, chills and muscle aches.

Health officials urge individuals to scan their bodies for ticks after outdoor activities. Officials say adults should check children who play or spend time outside daily. Backenson noted individuals should check behind waistbands, in the groin and armpit areas and other places that a small insect is likely to be overlooked.

According to the DOH, an individual should contact their health care provider immediately if a rash or flu-like symptoms develop after a tick bite.

Backenson said individuals could be bit by a tick anywhere in the state, but the insects tend to be more prevalent “on the edge of things,” such as where a lawn meets a wooded area or a field.

“That sort of field-forest edge is definitely the danger zone and it can extend out into the field, or human habitat, where we are,” Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “If you’re going to be in tick habitat you need to protect yourself.”

Despite ticks tending to gravitate toward those areas, health officials say the insects can be found in other places and urge individuals to check for ticks after any outdoor activity.

If a tick is discovered, there are specific ways to remove it. The DOH recommends grasping the mouthparts with fine-point tweezers as close as possible to the attachment site, pulling firmly and steadily upward to remove the insect being careful not to squeeze or crush the body of the tick.

Gangoff-Kaufmann said ticks can transmit Powassan virus to humans in as little as 15 minutes of attachment. Though rare, Powassan virus has been found in ticks in New York and can cause encephalitis and even death.  

“It’s really important to get the tick off as soon as possible,” she said. “It only takes one tick.”

The best way to prevent Lyme and other tick-borne disease is to prevent tick bites. Using repellants, such as DEET and permethrin, and wearing long sleeves and pants are effective ways to prevent bites. Health officials also recommend wearing light colored clothing so ticks are more visible.

There are also measures individuals can take that may reduce tick populations on their property, including maintaining short grass and creating a buffer zone, with mulch or stone, between woods or high grass fields and the lawn in which daily activities take place.

In addition to the black-legged, or deer tick, there are several other species of tick in New York that can carry diseases.

American dog ticks, which are much larger than black-legged ticks, are the main carrier of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Backenson said, noting there are a dozen or so cases of the fever in New York each year.

Lonestar ticks are not known to carry Lyme disease, but they are a vector for other diseases, one of which Gangloff-Kauffman described as “an allergy to a sugar in red meat.” Lonestar ticks can also carry Ehrlichiosis, a bacterial illness that has symptoms such as body aches and fever.  

Backenson said Lonestar ticks have been found in practically every county in New York but not in large numbers outside Long Island.

The Asian Longhorned tick is an invasive species concentrated in the Hudson Valley, but has been seen in other areas across the state in recent years. The invasive tick is not a serious threat to humans, but is considered a major livestock pest and could impact the dairy industry in New York.

For more information on ticks and tick-borne illnesses, visit the DOH website or dontgettickedny.org.

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