May means warm weather and… Lyme disease?

As Central New Yorkers start taking advantage of warm weather, it is important to remember that many species of creepy crawlies are doing the same thing.

Lyme Disease Awareness Month, adopted in New York on March 14, 2013, at the behest of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seeks to inform citizens on the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, according to The New York Senate Open Legislation Service.

Lyme Disease was first recorded in 1975 in Lyme, Conn., after several children started experiencing arthritic symptoms, including swollen joints and pain, according to the Connecticut Department of Health. It became a reportable disease in 1987.

Reportable diseases are diseases of such great health importance that it is required they be reported when diagnosed to local, state, and national agencies.

According to Evan Walsh, Assistant Public Health Sanitarian at the Oswego County Health Department, the first “locally grown” tick positive for Lyme was discovered in 1996. Locally grown means that the person infected had no, or limited, travel outside the county, so Lyme must be present within the county.

Karen Sime, an assistant professor at SUNY Oswego with a specialty in entomology, said that Oswego does not seem to have a lot of cases of Lyme disease, compared to other areas. “Oswego has Lyme, but does not seem to have nearly the level of problem seen in areas closer to the coast; Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, etcetera.”

In addition to Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine, New York is one of the 13 states where 96 percent of Lyme disease cases were reported in 2011, according to the Center for Disease Control. Lyme disease is also the 6th most commonly reported vectorborne illness in the United States.

Visiting professor of biology at SUNY Oswego, John Laundré said at an unrelated lecture that the prevalence of Lyme in the northeast and upper Midwest is due to overpopulation of white-tailed deer in these regions. White-tailed deer are the meal of choice for certain species of tick.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, and is transmitted through the bite of infected ticks. The carrier tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours before it can infect the host. Ticks are capable of attaching themselves to any part of the human body, but prefer the hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp, according to the CDC.

The erythema migrans rash, pictured by the Center for Disease Control.

The Mayo Clinic lists these signs and symptoms that may occur within a month of infection: the “hallmark” of Lyme disease, the erythema migrans rash, which forms a bull’s-eye pattern after a few days. If the disease goes untreated, the rash can spread to multiple places throughout the body. Those infected can also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, fatigue, and body aches.

Advanced symptoms, several weeks to months after infection, include severe joint pain and swelling. Inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain, and temporary paralysis of one side of the face, also known respectively as meningitis and Bell’s palsy, can also occur.

Since 2009, there have been 70 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Oswego County, according to Walsh. He says that number is misleading. A positive is based off of the fulfillment of several criteria, if the criteria are not met, it cannot be reported as a positive. That means that some of the 43 people tested in 2009, 40 in 2010, 46 in 2011 and 96 in 2012 could have had the disease.

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The Oswego County Health Department Lyme disease Fact Sheet

“The best way to prevent Lyme disease is education.  People need to understand the risk factors involved with the disease, especially the ecology of the disease system.” Eric Hellquist, an assistant professor of biology at SUNY Oswego said. He suggests people dress appropriately when outside in areas believed to contain ticks.

“People should wear long pants with light colored socks over the cuffs and long sleeve, light colored shirts so that ticks can be easily seen if one gets on you.  Using repellant on your sleeves and pant legs is also a good idea.  When you get home, giving yourself a thorough tick check is also important,” he said.

If you find a tick attached to your skin despite your best precautions, remove the tick with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, pulling with an upward, even pressure. After removal, clean the area and your hands thoroughly. Try to remove the tick as quickly as possible once you become aware of it to prevent transmission.

Take the tick to your health care provider for testing, or send it to a lab that accepts ticks for testing from the general public.

Salais at Rice Creek Field Station
Salais at Rice Creek Field Station

Zuzi Salais, a student at SUNY Oswego, is conducting a project under the advisement of Hellquist, testing blacklegged ticks at the Rice Creek Field Station for Lyme.

“I wanted to know: One, do we have ticks there and if so what is the abundance and life stage? Two, is Lyme disease present as Rice Creek? And three, I wanted to create a map with GPS coordinates of areas where ticks were found, infected and non-infected, so that anyone visiting Rice Creek was aware of at risk areas,” Salais said.

The first step of her study was to find the ticks. After reading the literature available on the insects, particularly the work of Richard Ostfeld, according to Salais he is the “guru of Lyme disease,” she chose a total of four habitats.

Forests, trails, meadows, and edges (the area between forests and meadows.) She sampled her 13 chosen habitats at Rice Creek three times a week, visiting each habitat once within that week.

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Salai dragging her flag while searching for ticks at Rice Creek Field Station.

To find ticks, she dragged a white corduroy flag behind her and examined it every 65 feet. Once found, she would identify it by gender and life stage before placing it into a centrifuge tube with ethanol to preserve it. So far, out of the 214 ticks she has collected, only one tested positive for Lyme disease.

Actively searching out Lyme positive ticks means that she had to take extra precaution to make sure she is not bit.

“I always wear a white tyvek suit, which is similar to a HAZMAT suit, and calf high boots to reduce the risk of ticks getting on me,” Salais said.

“This is a very important topic, especially with summer coming up and everyone heading out to do all those fun activities outdoors. I find that ticks are a bit like us, they don’t like to be out in the rain and they love summer,” she said.