Sunday, February 24, 2019

Viewpoint: Important Tick Research Needs Support

tick next to dimeI’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.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.




28 Responses

  1. Tom Wemett says:

    Tim, thank you for bringing this forward. We live in north central Massachusetts and the ticks were everywhere last year. After daily walks with our dog we were removing dozens from him and many from ourselves. We use what tick protections we can. I found ticks embedded in me twice last year. We preserve them in a zip lock bag with a wet paper towel and drop them of for testing. We also immediately call our doctors and get a prescription for Doxycycline and take it until we get the results. If negative we stop the Doxy. If positive we continue the Doxy for one month. I have the remnants of Lime in my system from a bite some 12 years ago. Lime can be a devastating disease and with global warming they continue to move north. I am hopeful that someone steps forward and finds the money to continued research and education. Doctors just don’t seem to be fully aware of the issue and should be. Thanks again for your reporting. I hope you continue to follow up with the issue.

  2. Ethan says:

    Scary but interesting and a reminder that Lyme is on the rise.
    I’m not quite sure why NY State funding is lagging but I think they need to get on it quickly.
    Another concern is that species such as coyotes and foxes and the role they play as predators of the white footed mouse seem to be taken for granted here in NY and elsewhere. Hunting and trapping them in unlimited numbers will no doubt ultimately prove to be unwise.
    In addition to Dr. Sporn’s work, the Cary Institute has also been involved in extensive study of Lyme Disease. Their website is
    https://caryinstitute.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=735fd733abe107220114c7fe0&id=02f861f2b8&e=e2c42f73ca

  3. Katharine Preston says:

    It would be super helpful to give us an address or name in Albany to contact about this rather ridiculous oversight….

    • Tom Bebee says:

      You can look up your NYS Assemblyman here:

      https://nyassembly.gov/mem/search/

      and your Senator here:

      https://www.nysenate.gov/find-my-senator

      Each one should have a web page with a Contact page where you can send them a note.

      Hope that helps.

    • John Davis says:

      Yes to Katharine’s comment on names and addresses in Albany; but an excellent and important article nonetheless, Tim, and many thanks for penning it. As part of ongoing and increased research on tick-borne ailments, we should be studying the likely contributing factors of habitat fragmentation and diminishment of native predators. From what I’ve heard, among the best steps for reducing our risks of getting Lyme disease would be protecting intact forest and restoring missing carnivores — especially Puma. We need more native predators out there, eating the rodents and deer that are the vectors for tick-borne ailments. Thanks, John Davis, Split Rock Wildway, eastern Adirondacks

      • Dan says:

        I can assure you there are more coyotes and less deer roaming the intact Adirondack forests that I frequent than say, ten years ago. And, many more ticks too; especially in the past five years. I’m not discounting the Paul Smith’s research, I’m just telling you what I’m seeing. I was treated for Lyme in 2010.

      • adkDreamer says:

        Deer are not a vector for Lyme disease. It’s a mice problem. Get rid of the mice – there goes the Lyme disease.

        https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/kiling-deer-not-answer-reducing-lyme-disease-html/

        • Lewis Ward says:

          Need to be stated. Thank you.

          That doesn’t mean deer are not a menace to the health of our forests when their populations exceeds the carrying capacity.

          • Dan says:

            As a hunter, I’d love to find a place in the Adirondacks, other than Old Forge, where that’s the case.

            • Lewis Ward says:

              In some spots in the Adirondacks that could be as few as 10 deer per square mile. Then damage to the next generation of trees shows up. Southern Tier can tolerate 15 per square mile, but the population is more like 60-80 per square mile.

        • Paul says:

          From the article:

          “The deer do not carry the bacteria. They are needed to continue the life cycle of the tick, but they are not infected. So as you killed deer, you would simply have more ticks per deer because the surface area of each is enough to support many ticks. Just killing deer won’t do the job.”

          The deer are an important part of the life cycle. They are required to over winter the ticks especially in a place like the Adirondacks. You are never going to eliminate mice in the wild nor would you want to screw up the environment like that.

          • adkDreamer says:

            Ticks over winter in leaf litter under the snow also as they go dormant, deer or any other animal are not required. Deer aren’t the sole source of a blood meal for ticks. Ask a moose.

            • Paul says:

              Dreamer, I think I am going to have to go with the Harvard scientists who say that the deer is required for the life cycle of the tick. These type of ticks do not over winter in the leaf litter as you suggest. Can other large mammals carry the ticks, of course, humans are a good example, but the main vectors are deer and mice. The females feed and lay their eggs on deer.

              • Boreas says:

                Paul,

                The pupal and nymphal stages typically feed on small mammals and birds, which may be infected (reservoirs). The ADULT deer tick often attaches to deer (hence the name) but most any mammal will do nicely.

                http://www.aldf.com/deer-tick-ecology/

                I think the reason deer are often targeted for control is because of their relative mobility and abundance in populated areas. But mice are the typical reservoir, which is why the tick tubes are developed to kill ticks in the mouses’ nesting material. So if you have mice around your house (who doesn’t?) either invest in or make your own tick tubes. They are simple to make.

          • Boreas says:

            The most logical control measure I have seen so far are tick tubes where the rodent carries permethrin-bearing nest material to their nest. No harm to anything but the ticks or insects in the nest. Ticks are killing some larger vertebrates directly simply because of their sheer numbers.

            I believe the focus should be on first reducing tick numbers by direct tick-control measures, not killing off vector organisms. If effective, this will drastically reduce human risk. The next phase would be attempting to eliminate the disease organisms altogether – if at all possible.

            What I don’t understand is why the increase in tick numbers? Yes, milder winters are a factor, but what controls tick numbers in more temperate regions? They obviously are controlled naturally in warmer climates. It is not like southerners are wading through ticks. What specifically are we missing in the north? Ground-feeding birds that eat them? Organisms that eat the larval/nymph stages? Eventually, the natural tick population control(s) mechanisms should catch up in the north, but when?? Can we speed up this process?

  4. Boreas says:

    If these diseases ever jump to different species of mice and ticks, it will become a MUCH bigger issue. NYS should certainly do its part in funding research, but this is a national problem – dare I say national emergency??

  5. Shantiann says:

    I’ve got news for you…..you ARE NOT “out of the woods yet! Grant it, you may be one of the very, very, few whose immune system can fight off that many tick bites without one of them being infected. Oh, and there are plenty more pathogens they carry than the two you mentioned. It can take 3 weeks to six-month before any signs of illness creeps in and I can guarantee you will do what so many others do…..”Oh, my neck is stiff–I must have slept funny on it; gee, I’m awful tired these days—-hmmm, I should get more sleep, I have been running around a lot,” etc., etc. Until finally you start going from doctor to doctor, and since Lyme and the co-infections they bring along have more than 350 symptoms, you will be diagnosed with everything from ME, to Lupus, to Fibro, and the list goes on. Finally, they will send you to a shrink because no one could possibly have THAT many symptoms that change so often. This time frame can range from 6 months to years of misdiagnosis. Testing? Yea, good luck with that. Unless you can frock over a grand or two for one of the few labs that have better testing (and no, they don’t take insurance either…..another bonus—if you’re lucky enough to find an LLMD [Lyme Literate Medical Doctor, they’re ALL CASH too because they need to stay under the radar of the government and insurance companies], it can take years for a proper diagnosis. By then, Lyme and any co-infections have now gone systemic. Oh, and Lyme is incurable at this point too. Some of us get to remission, most, do not. We have short spurts of health where we can semi-function, but they don’t last long and when the symptoms come back, it’s with a vengeance. How do I KNOW all this? As a former on-air personality and investigative reporter (before they turned into the questionable people most have become), and a Stage III Neuro-lyme victim, I too believed what you did. If you REALLY want to know the truth about just how bad Lyme and this mockery of how the systems—government, medical, and insurance—-truly are, here are two websites for you to educate yourself and RUN, dont walk to the nearest LLMD you can find! Dr. Kenneth Liegner is in Westchester county and one of the top in the nation, and also find the best Naturopathic doc you can so they can work together. Better still, go to the library and pick up Dr. Burrascano’s latest book on lyme and treatment protocols, “Why Can’t I Get Better.” Websites: ILADS.org and Global Lyme Alliance. There’s also one out in California that is also on top of this but I can’t remember at the moment. If you want more info, please feel free to contact me at: alxkwriter@yahoo.com. Good luck and please don’t wait to see someone or a year or two from now, even reading a paragraph 10 times and STILL not co pretending it, will give you pause as to why you didn’t get tested properly sooner! Don’t let the rest of us guinea pigs, who have paved the way for you, watch in sorrow as another one bites the dust. P.S. Very well-written piece.

  6. Sandra Weber says:

    This research needs to continue in New York State, and funding should continue. I am a bit confused about the role of Betty Little in this. She is our representative, and regardless of political party, she should be carrying the banner for this issue. She is still responsible to her constituents and should be working for our interests, i.e. funding Lyme research.

  7. Lewis Ward says:

    I’m writing because I see a disturbing problem of upstate-downstate and Republican-Democrat division. Public health should Never be compromised. I’m well aware of the excellent research at the Carey Institute in Millbrook on the ecology, monitoring and control of Lyme Disease.The NYS DEC has been educating the public for years. I’m sure there has been state funding both there and for Cornell and ESF Syracuse. Basic biological research usually is funded through the federal government.

    Unfortunately, this type of upstate-downstate and Republican-Democrat blame doesn’t address the issue of public health. Lyme disease was unknown in New York State 30+ years ago. When My mother first came down with it she had to visit a specialist who had been treating the first few cases. While the epidemic was beginning no one:Democrat, Republican, Upstate, or Downstate was paying attention. Even 15 years ago in Tompkins County people were quite ignorant about the problem.

    The NYS budget is a highly political process that is often inexplicable. Public health should not be governed by politics. Funding is needed for Lyme Disease
    —Lewis Ward

    “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.”

  8. Charlie S says:

    I just sent a note to John McDonald assemblyman for my area.

  9. Paul says:

    If you have a “bulls eye” rash, don’t shake it off like Tim did. Go to your doctor and get tested for lyme. Don’t wait for it to get to later stages (like the guy described who can’t get around very well probably because of joint damage) where treatment is not as effective. The “bulls eye” rash means the disease has already gone systemic. After some time the rash can then fade, that does not mean that you still do not have Lyme disease.

    • Boreas says:

      Paul,

      I agree – I am hoping the medical community and insurance companies are moving more toward test AND treat vs. test THEN treat. Getting a confirmed diagnosis can be difficult, and often by then it is too late. But to make things even more complicated, the standard antibiotic treatment isn’t 100% effective which means resistance will likely increase. On top of all this, disease vectors are notorious for jumping species over time. This is why research and public education is so critical.

      • Paul says:

        Why would you test if no matter the result you would treat? Just to gather data? I guess that makes sense.

        My older son had lyme, he had a fever and he had the EM (in numerous places indicating a pretty severe spread). Could actually see it appear and then disappear and re-appear in another spot (the bite does not have to be in the middle of a bullseye rash). He tested positive and was treated successfully. Tough and expensive course of antibiotics, hated to have to do it, but it had to be done. Probably cleared all the beneficial bacteria out of his system, then you need to recognize your micro-biome. Get dirty!

        • Boreas says:

          Paul,

          Yes – to gather data to specify the infection AND to test for resistance and proper course of treatment. A simple course of cheap doxy most likely will not stay effective forever – if it is even effective now. Does it just treat the primary infection sending the disease into a long remission? Does it do anything to reduce the auto-immune reaction that is part of the secondary or tertiary phases of the disease?

          Very complex. Also, simple, cheap doxy treatment may not be the most effective drug against the primary Lyme infection. Then you have to consider the other possible diseases with similar presentations. Perhaps a shotgun antibiotic/antiviral approach with any tick bite is in order? Seems excessive, but what is the best answer? Perhaps possible vaccination? We simply don’t know. This is why the research dollars are imperative.

  10. drdirt says:

    I woke up twice this past week w/ a tick on my arm. Hmmmm, must have picked it up in the woods hiking with the grandkids when they spent a couple nights w/ us over the vacation. Then I realized that it was more likely the ticks came in from the woodpile, warmed up in my house and came out for dinner. .,.,.,.,
    Just a warning to all you woodburners , better check the grandkids for ticks before they go home !!! I remember picking ticks off the cats once a week in the old days .,..,, now I check every day. I also used to think Lyme disease was a ‘one in a million’ problem, but not any more. .,.,., thanks for the article.

  11. Vanessa Banti says:

    Omg this is a GREAT article, thank you for posting!! A really important topic that is poorly understood. Lyme is absolutely a dangerous and especially under-researches disease. Unfortunately, climate change means it will remain common in the Northeast. Kudos to the writer – am sharing this one with ADK friends 🙂

  12. Judith A Golombiski says:

    An educational seminar on Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses is being held on May 4, 2019 from 1-4 PM at the Farnsworth Middle School of the Guilderland Central School District, 6072 State Farm Road (Route 155) in Guilderland, NY. Speakers from the Lyme Action Network, including Dr. Holly Ahern, Microbiologist, SUNY Adirondack Community College, medical professionals and other speakers will provide an update on what is being done to combat this epidemic as well as information on the prevention and treatment of Lyme. More information will be available soon on the Guilderland Garden Club website: http://www.guilderlandgardenclub.com . For the Lyme Action Network, go to http://www.LymeActionNetwork.org.

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