Taking Tick-Borne Diseases Seriously

Public Health officials issue a warning about a tick-borne disease. The more common Lyme disease is getting some long-overdue attention as well.

By Anthony F. Hall, Lake George Mirror

(Reproduced with permission.)

Last week, Warren County’s public health officials issued an advisory about an increasingly common tick-borne disease, anaplasmosis.

According to Ginelle Jones, Warren County Health Services director, 40 cases of anaplasmosis have been documented in 2021, a fourfold increase over the nine cases diagnosed last year and more than twice the number reported in both 2018 and 2019.

“This dramatic increase is concerning, as anaplasmosis can cause serious illness if not diagnosed properly and treated promptly,” said Jones. “The increased presence of this disease is yet another reason to be vigilant about taking precautions to avoid tick bites.”

Tick-Borne Diseases: A Growing Problem

In the years since 1994, tick-borne diseases, Lyme disease especially, have migrated progressively northward, into the Lake George region, the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River Valley.

In Warren County, for instance, more than half the ticks sampled in recent years carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the microbe responsible for Lyme disease, according to New York’s Department of Health.

Smaller percentages carry Anaplasma and Ehrlichia, the sources of anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, respectively.

According to Holly Ahern, a professor of microbiology at SUNY Adirondack and a nationally recognized expert on tick-borne diseases, “the bacteria that cause anaplasmosis are closely related to the those responsible for ehrlichiosis and it’s often difficult to tell the two diseases apart. So, although this advisory is about anaplasmosis, ehrlichia should be a concern as well.”

Both induce acute symptoms, such as high fevers, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea and both can advance by stages to become lifethreatening diseases, said Ahern.

“These are not trivial diseases; they are life-altering,” said Ahern.

Lyme Disease: Too Long Ignored

Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichia are often diagnosed and treated more quickly than Lyme disease, which can cause chronic, debilitating illnesses, said Ahern.

“There’s a great deal of disparity with the medical approach to tickborne illnesses,” said Ahern.

Lyme disease is now the second most common form of infectious disease found in the United States. New York State alone has documented 92,577 cases of Lyme over the last two decades, according to the federal government. But because the symptoms may initially appear mild, Lyme is not always diagnosed quickly or treated effectively.

“Lyme disease is viewed by too many public health officials as ‘a high incidence, low impact disease.’ It’s not given the attention it deserves,” said Ahern.

Ticks and Climate Change

According to Ahern, the explosion of every type of tickborne disease is a result, at least in part, of climate change.

“The conditions that once suppressed the tick population at our altitudes are changing and we’re paying the price,” said Ahern. “Conditions enable the ticks to reproduce more quickly; more ticks equal more human interaction; the more interaction, the greater the exposure to pathogens.”

Lack of Funding, Lack of Research

Ahern said the number of cases of anaplasmosis diagnosed in Warren County is not necessarily an accurate indicator of the percentage of ticks carrying Anaplasma and Ehrlichia or of the degree of risk to human beings of contracting a serious illness.

For that reason, sustained scientific research into the spread of tick populations and the transmission of tick-borne diseases remains essential.

Unfortunately, funding at both the state and federal levels for research has been jeopardized in recent years.

State funding that fueled the work of researchers such as Ahern and Paul Smith’s College biology professor Lee Ann Sporn, for instance was eliminated and only partially restored by the New York State legislature.

“I get no funding from the state anymore. My research is now funded privately,” said Ahern.

According to US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, federal investment in research and prevention for these diseases remains low, with just $191 spent per case of Lyme disease.

She has called for $12 million for the Department of Defense’s TickBorne Disease Research Program (TBDRP) and additional funding for tick-borne disease research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In Albany, a bipartisan consensus is emerging about the need to fund research in tick-borne diseases, said Ahern.

A New York State Tick and Tick-Borne Disease Working Group has also been established that includes an array of perspectives, including  those of health care consumers and advocates for those afflicted with tick-related illnesses.

“The Working Group includes stakeholders, not just Department of Health scientists, which is a step forward so that the experience of the patient can be taken into account,” said Ahern, a member of the Working Group and one who considers herself a “private stakeholder.” Ten years ago, her daughter Kaleigh Ahern, then a student at Union College, was stricken with Lyme Disease; her recovery was long and difficult.

“We were marginalized by a medical system overly invested in a narrow, outdated medical perspective that hasn’t changed in over 30 years, despite newer science showing that the disease is far more complex than previously thought,” Ahern has written.

A Public Health and an Economic Menace

In the Adirondacks, ticks and tick-borne diseases are not only a challenge for public health departments, but for the tourism industry.

“People have not been deterred from visiting the region because of ticks and Lyme disease, but they do express concerns once they’re here,” said Elaine Chiovarou-Brown of the Bolton Landing Chamber of Commerce. “We advise them to take precautions, but tell them they shouldn’t feel as though they have to avoid the woods.”

According to Ginelle Jones, Warren County plans to install signage at busy trailheads, parks and other outdoor recreational facilities warning users about the dangers of ticks and recommending measures to avoid contracting tick-borne illnesses.

Jamie Brown, executive director of the Lake George Land Conservancy, said his organization recommends those same measures to its stewards, volunteers and hikers visiting its preserves.

They include: wearing clothing treated with permethrin to kill ticks; using insect repellent on exposed skin, such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone; wearing light colored clothing and a hat, long pants tucked into socks, long-sleeved shirts fitted at wrists and closed-toe shoes; hiking in the middle of the trail; performing a full body check and showering after an outing.

Anyone interested in learning more about ticks and tick-borne diseases in New York State is encouraged to view a talk Ahern will present via Zoom to the Dutchess County Tick Task Force on July 20. The presentation will be accessible through the task force’s web site.

Dr. Holly Ahern, a professor of microbiology at SUNY Adirondack, with her daughter Kayleigh. Kayleigh’s struggle with Lyme disease stimulated Prof. Ahern’s research into ticks and tick-borne illnesses and turned her into a national advocate for those suffering from these illnesses.