June 28, 2006
Anecdotal reports from town employees and local physicians of a larger-than-normal tick population this summer raises the possibility of more cases of Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
"I was talking to three of my workers who were working out at Shadmore the last two or three days, and they were pretty much covered with ticks," said Larry Penny, East Hampton Town's Director of Natural Resource, referring to the park in Montauk.
"Definitely I've seen many more cases this year than last," added Dr. Joseph Burrascano, a Lyme disease specialist with a practice in East Hampton.
He attributed the change to a number of factors, including the weather and an increase in the numbers of the Lonestar tick, a more aggressive tick that also carries and transmits Lyme Disease. The wet, mild spring allowed the ticks and their host rodent populations to grow faster than normal. "Ticks like moisture," Burrascano said.
Lonestar ticks, which started appearing in the area 10 years ago, are also becoming a significant problem, according to Burrascano. "They bite more ferociously; they can transmit the infection in as little as a few hours, rather than overnight, and they can contain a wide variety of germs, even more so than the deer tick," he explained.
Lyme disease, a bacterial infection most often transmitted through a deer tick bite, causes a flu-like sickness, but can be easily treated with antibiotics if caught early. Untreated, chronic cases can cause significant physical problems, and require a longer course and combinations of antibiotics.
Tick-borne co-infections that often accompany Lyme disease, including Babesia, Ehrlichia, Bartonella, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever "can be treated easily if they are caught early," Burrascano said.
Preventative measures can significantly lower the risk of contracting Lyme. According to Burrascano, in the mid 1980s, the East End of Long Island had the highest case rate of the disease in the country. A group of local physicians put together a newsletter called Tick Talk with information about the tick-borne diseases and prevention tips that was mailed to all East Hampton and Southampton homes. "Since then, the rate of Lyme in our area, while still high, is much better than what it is, for example in Westchester, Pennsylvania, Maryland. It's actually pretty good," Burrascano said.
In order to prevent tick bites, the educational brochure Lyme Times recommends that lawns be mowed on a regular basis, brush and leaves be removed from around the house, and pets be inspected for ticks on a regular basis. The guide suggests wearing light-colored clothing and long pants when working outside. Clothing treated with permetherin, a synthetic repellent, is particularly effective at killing and warding off ticks, better than DEET-based repellents. Tick checks should be conducted after returning indoors.
Burrascano believes more preventative measures should be undertaken by local governments. He suggested a curriculum about Lyme be included in schools, regular public service announcements be made about tick-related diseases, and informational fliers be included with hunting and other outdoor licensing packets.
Area towns do not conduct widespread spraying to kill ticks. "Widespread pesticide use is not going to be acceptable," said Allyn Jackson, the director of Southampton's Park and Recreation Department, adding Southampton Town workers do limited spraying in only "highly concentrated areas" where there is a lot of foot traffic.
Trail maintenance on public lands is one of the main methods of tick prevention locally. Jim McMahon, the director of Public Works for Southold, said trails are kept eight feet wide and leaf and brush litter is removed "to reduce possible exposure" to ticks.
The deer that play host to the infected ticks should be a focus of town-sponsored prevention policies as well, Penny noted. "Until we start controlling the deer a little more effectively, we're always going to have a ton of ticks," he said.