Stay Away from Insect Borne Illness

Tick-borne disease cases reported in NYS has more than doubled between 2004 and 2016. WNY residents urged to be on the lookout

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

You have plenty of reasons to keep bugs from bugging you this summer.

Some, such as mosquitoes and ticks, can spread illnesses such as Lyme disease.

The New York State Department of Health states that Erie and Niagara counties in 2017 had fewer than 62.9 cases of Lyme disease reported per 100,000 in population (the most recent data available).

The counties have some of the lowest rates statewide. That at first seems like good news; however, reports of tick-borne disease cases reported has more than doubled statewide between 2004 and 2016, with increased rates heading westward across New York.

Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that the number of actual cases of Lyme disease in general is 10 times the number reported.

“We’re seeing over the years that in the United States and in Erie County, an increasing trend in cases of Lyme disease,” said physician Gale Burstein, commissioner of health at the Erie County Department of Health. “These are surveillance data. We follow only trends. There are a lot of clinicians that diagnose Lyme disease empirically. They don’t do the testing so it never gets reported but is treated. Those numbers are low.”

Lyme spreads as black deer ticks infected with Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria bite humans. Black deer ticks also spread less common diseases, babesiosis, human granulocytic, anaplasmosis and deer tick virus.

“About half the people in Erie that have reported Lyme that we’ve investigated deny travel history so that means they were infected in Erie County,” Burstein said.

Other types of ticks also spread diseases by biting humans, but it’s rarer than Lyme disease. These include the American dog tick (Rocky Mountain spotted fever), Lone Star tick (human monocytic ehrlichiosis), and woodchuck/groundhog tick (powassan/encephalitis virus).

Only about half of adult deer ticks and one-third of nymphs carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, named for Old Lyme, the Connecticut town where the disease was first identified in the 1970s. The ticks typically travel by waiting on tall grass for a passing host. Ticks can hitch a ride on wildlife to residential areas. Hikers, hunters, birders and campers are at greater risk because they spend time in wooded areas.

Burstein said that if a tick has been stuck to a person for more than 36 hours, the person should contact a health care provider to see if he or she qualifies for a prophylactic antibiotic to treat Lyme disease. The site of the bite shows a bull’s-eye patterned rash in about half the cases.

To remove a tick, use narrow tweezers to grasp its head and pull it out, taking care to remove it. Don’t use a matchstick, petroleum jelly or other ineffective home remedies.

Lyme disease symptoms include severe headache, fever, joint pain, facial droop, muscle pain, and sometimes, muscle weakness.

As for mosquito-borne illnesses, Burstein said that they’re more rare. While most otherwise healthy people recover fine from many of these diseases, it’s not the case for all. The very young, the very old and those of any age who are immuno-compromised tend to experience more complications.

West Nile Virus has no vaccine or treatment; however, only one-fifth of those infected develop any illness and of those, only 1% develop serious issues. Most experience a fever and flu-like symptoms.

Sharon Bachman, agriculture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County, said that many of the steps for preventing tick bites are the same for mosquito bites, including wearing long sleeves and pants, tucking in shirts and tucking pants into socks while outside.

“Use approved pesticide products containing DEET,” she said.

Repellent should contain 25% DEET.

You can also purchase clothing treated with permethrin or treat your footwear and clothing with the tick-killing chemical. Bachman said that permethrin lasts for six washings or, on shoes, about three months.

Bachman also recommends wearing light colored clothing if you’re going in a tick habitat.

“Tuck your pant legs into your socks,” she added. “The tick will have to crawl higher up on you. It gives you more time to see them.”

Extra precautions for ticks include staying on the center of hiking trails, to avoid brushing against foliage. Don’t sit directly on the ground or surfaces like stone walls. Shower after outdoor activities like hiking or gardening and wash the clothing worn as well.

Family members can check each other for ticks in the hard-to-see areas. But keep in mind that ticks like dark, warm areas, like the armpits.