I’d been living in the North Country for about a month when I woke up to discover a red bulls eye on my left arm. Since, mentally and emotionally, I have never advanced much past the fourth grade, my first thought was: “Cool!”
Because it was clearly visible, however, a number of people subsequently pointed out that this, technically, was nothing to celebrate. So I walked around for the next three days looking like the dog from the Target ads, while people dutifully commented on my impending doom.
Nothing ever came of it. So far the only discomfort ticks have caused me is embarrassment, owing to an appointment with a massage therapist that went horribly wrong.
I must have been in the woods before my appointment, because I was lying on the table and we were actually discussing ticks when I hear her say, “Oh, this looks like a tick right here.” She tweezed it off and disposed of it with the same care generally associated with nuclear waste and was just resuming treatment when she found another. And then another. And another. She was picking them off of me like blueberries, and I have to say, no matter how much you try to keep current with Miss Manners, nothing prepares you for this.
So needless to say, these episodes have combined to put ticks and Lyme disease on my radar. Anecdotal evidence is always to be taken with a grain of salt, but I have also met what seems to me to be an inordinate number of people who have been infected with Lyme. I talked with a gentleman earlier this month who is so stricken that he views it as a win if he can just bring himself to make it to the grocery store and back. My neighbor, a hale and hearty contractor has been knocked out of work. A local business has a whole family that has tested positive for Lyme.
Multiple people I’ve talked to are afraid to hike anywhere there is grass or undergrowth. Their enjoyment of the park is curtailed because they must stick to roads and gravel paths. One neighbor, whenever he is bitten, sends the tick and $50 off to a lab for testing.
Lyme is not rare. It is not inconsequential. And it is spreading.
Yet those in places that can make a difference, from physicians, to insurers, to state lawmakers, have been slow to identify the crisis. And, incredibly, it might be about to get worse.
The North Country has one researcher with boots on the ground: Dr. Lee Ann Sporn, and her students at Paul Smith’s College who do yeoman’s work tramping over hill and dale to collect ticks. This raw data tells the medical community the two things it most critically needs to know — where are the ticks and what is the infection rate?
But at the February meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency, Sporn dropped a bombshell. This year in Albany, no money has been allocated for tick research. Zero. Squadoosh.
Previously, money was forthcoming through a Senate Task Force on Lyme and Other Tick Borne Diseases, but as the Democrats have taken office, no senator has stepped forward to take up the banner that had been carried by Republican Sen. Betty Little when the GOP was in power.
Sporn says it’s not that Democrats don’t care about public health, it’s just that in the hectic changing of the guard, ticks and Lyme have failed to work their way onto any Democratic Senator’s radar. She’s hoping public pressure will get some senator’s attention, so your calls and emails will be appreciated. Statewide, if something doesn’t happen in March, that means the loss of $1 million for essential research.
Paul Smith’s researchers described the treat this way in a call to arms: “Our results from last fall demonstrate that the risk is escalating. At one site in Essex County, 85 percent of ticks were infected with Lyme, and a large number were infected with three different human pathogens — including Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis. Our findings from Fall 2018 also show that the deadly Powassan virus has spread into the North Country. We predict that these threats will continue to rise, and without sufficient funding we will be unable to determine when and where.”
Except when it comes to the evils of smart speakers, I am not a fearmonger. But this potential loss of funding is both frightening and unconscionable. Certainly Albany has heard about a little thing we like to call climate change, and here is a direct result for them to hang their hats on.
Lawmakers cannot tsk-tsk climate change deniers on one hand, but then fail to act when one concrete result of it is in the here and now. And something can be done about it.
Sporn’s science has also translated into practical information for the layperson as well. The infection rate is the highest in the height of summer, and less so in the shoulder seasons. The time a tick has been attached for most tick-borne diseases matters. If you find it quickly after a hike, you’re probably OK. But if the tick has been hanging on like Anthony Scaramucci for 24 hours or more the risk is more severe. The chances of an Adirondack tick being a carrier of Lyme is “a coin flip,” Sporn says, so it’s best to assume the worst.
This scant amount of funding to maintain research is the prototypical “rounding error,” in government math, yet the quality of North Country living hangs squarely in the balance. I managed to dodge a bullet, but many others have not, and will not, be as lucky.
Photo of tick next to dime provided by DEC.