Paul Smith’s College’s efforts to monitor tick populations and tick-borne pathogens in the Adirondack region, in collaboration with the New York State Department of Health, have documented an increase in infected ticks in the North Country.
Focusing primarily on St. Lawrence, Clinton, Franklin and Essex counties, Paul Smith’s College biology professor Dr. Lee Ann Sporn, a team of students and Adirondack Watershed Institute stewards have been collecting blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, which are tested by the Department of Health for disease-causing agents. In addition to an increase in the bacteria causing Lyme disease, the researchers have also recently found ticks carrying the agent that causes human babesiosis for the first time ever in the North Country.
Babesiosis, a malaria-like illness historically encountered in southeastern New York and coastal New England, typically presents with fever, chills, sweats, fatigue, and anemia. The infection can be very serious in the elderly, people without a spleen, those with poor immune systems, and if left untreated. Babesiosis is treated with standard antimalarial medications.
While cases of Lyme disease have increased 1.5-fold statewide over the past 13 years, counties in the Adirondacks have seen a twentyfold jump in the same period.
Preventing a bite is as simple as wearing light-colored clothing, tucking pants into socks, wearing an insect repellent, and remembering to check oneself “head-to-toe” at the end of the day for ticks. Sporn added that May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, a timely reminder for all New York State residents to be vigilant for ticks and take actions to prevent tick-borne illness.
Paul Smith’s College field researchers, who collect ticks by dragging cloths in the understory vegetation, have found that tick populations are still patchy in the North Country. High density areas are typically found at lower elevation sites, but blacklegged ticks can be found throughout the region.
While tick bites can happen year-round, even on 40-plus degree days in the winter, both people and pets are especially susceptible in mid-May through July, when nymphs are out seeking a host. The young ticks are small and more difficult to spot.
Nearly half of the adult blacklegged ticks, and a quarter of the nymphs, that were collected in North Country counties tested positive for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, also known as Borrelia burgdorferi.
One potential predictor of Lyme disease risk in humans is cases in dogs, since they are often more likely to encounter ticks than their owners. In Franklin County, 26 percent of dogs tested show exposure to Borrelia burgdorferi. The number of human cases of Lyme disease reported in Franklin, as well as Clinton and Essex counties, increased by nearly 200 percent from 2012 to 2015.
Paul Smith’s College researchers and the New York State Department of Health collect and test ticks for five different pathogens that could affect humans. While Lyme disease is a major focus in the Adirondacks, this summer researchers will further investigate the prevalence of the pathogen causing babesiosis, which was found in about 12 percent of adult blacklegged ticks in an area near the border of Clinton and Essex counties last year.
Photo: Female Deer Tick, courtesy Agricultural Research Service.