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CommonHealth: Lyme Disease May Hit New Highs This Season

This year’s mild winter, while free of excessive shoveling and snow plows, could bring some unexpected surprises this spring. Think early blooming flowers, a fierce allergy season… and Lyme disease.

While our somewhat spring-like winter isn’t to blame for the increased risk of Lyme disease, it is to blame for the the increased risk of exposure to the disease.

“This past winter was record-breaking mild, and when you get records, when you have extremes in weather events, to some degree all bets are off,” Dr. Richard Ostfeld told WBUR’s CommonHealth. “We don’t really know whether the nymphs are going to start their activity earlier this year than in normal years. So it’s remotely possible they could be out as early as April. They’re cold-blooded creatures, so things [speed] up in terms of their metabolism and development when things are warmer. So it could be a bit earlier than usual. I wouldn’t wait to be vigilant. The time is now.”

We take a closer look.

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  • Anonymous

    Just heard this  story, three days after being diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease.  I live in North Adams, Berkshires and I contracted Lyme’s within last one or two months [they can measure it seems by certain blood markers.] This means sometime in January-February!

    • Joanie

      same here, though in NW Middlesex County and the Dx a few weeks ago. I’ve been pulling ticks off of me most of the winter, including today during the story.  My kid, who was in his office all day, got one on himself as well, I guess just from walking from his car to the house.  

      Clearing out the leaves and all the debris that can harbor moisture and ticks all day long on this first day of so far a weird spring…

  • dgsmom

    Meg – Please don’t sound apologetic when you introduce yet another story on Lyme disease.  You know what’s a downer?  Not your informative and insightful story.  Loss of work and school time due to Lyme disease is a true downer.  Lost of functioning, both cognitive and motor, due to Lyme disease is a downer.  Lyme is a very serious disease and endemic here in the Northeast.  For some reason, we still believe that we can walk through the woods – and our backyards – with impunity.  The sooner the public understands that the ticket (a very minor one!) to enjoying the outdoors is a 40-second tick check (with the eyes and hands) and spray and clothing precautions outlined by the CDC, the better.  The price for our desire to not change our ways – arthritic pain, loss of functioning and in rare cases loss of life – is too great.

    Thank you for the story and for Dr. Goldberg’s explanation of Lyme disease risk and the tick life cycle.

  • Anonymous

    Meg,
    The ecological factors are only 1 of 3 influences on the number of Lyme disease cases.  The other two are human behavior and spring/summer weather events (e.g., drought, lots of rain, one bad storm).  Even if the ecological data suggest that this might be a bad year (lots of ticks due to lots of rodents last year, possibly earlier host-seeking activity of nymphs this spring), if we have a drought in May (continue our current precipitation pattern) then nymphal ticks will die sooner than they usually do.  Any greater number of cases due to early activity (perhaps as soon as mid April) here will balance the fewer cases reported in July due to tick mortality in June (given a drought).   Or, gas prices will continue to suck and folks won’t drive down as much to the Cape or the Islands, or to Ipswich, and stay closer to home and thus there might be less exposure.

    Accordingly, my opinion is that it is extremely difficult to predict the number of cases in any given year, regardless of the ecological trends.  Indeed, I will publicly bet Rick a case of Boston’s finest (Sam Adams) that the number of cases for 2012 when DPH tallies them up (data usually in around January of the following year) will be within plus or minus 5 percent of 2011.  DPH will provide the numbers; the data is number of confirmed cases for all of Massachusetts.   You will judge.  (I will send you a check for the beer tomorrow to hold…I am putting my money where my mouth is.  I don’t know what kind of swill is made in NY but he can bet any case of beer.)  If I understand correctly,  Rick has predicted 20% more.  Let the numbers prove or disprove the skill of the prognosticator!

    Of course, anything that promotes awareness is a good thing for public health.  By having debates like this, we help educate people.  Use personal protection (repellents).  Do tick checks in the shower. Go see your health care provider if you have an unexplained fever and believe you live in or have visited a site where you may have been exposed to ticks.  However, don’t go overboard.  There is no reason for hysteria.  Enjoy the outdoors.

    Sam Telford, Professor, Tufts U.

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  • https://identify.us.com IdentifyUS

    I second Dr. Telford’s comments and predictions.  The abundance of deer ticks during the coming season depends, in large part, on the weather we’re yet to experience.  Hence, predicting the population size months ahead is essentially a forecast based upon a forecast (of the weather). That’s a very shaky proposition, indeed. I daily receive ticks for evaluation from folks across the region. Although I’ve noted that the adult deer ticks have remained active on warm days though this unseasonable winter, they do not seem more abundant than expected. If risk has increased, it is likely attributable to more folks out enjoying the great outdoors but then failing to take steps to promptly search for and remove any attached ticks.  It will be interesting to see what transpires in the coming months.  Two things are clear. Firstly, there will be ticks, regardless of the weather, or the abundance of mice, deer and acorns.  Secondly, the ticks neither will read nor comply with any predictions or modeling exercises.  So, folks should take care to avoid ticks. For those who find a tick attached, they’d be wise to have it evaluated and to obtain objective guidance.
    Richard Pollack, PhD (IdentifyUS LLC)

  • Richard S. Ostfeld, PhD

    Ostfeld responds:

    The unprecedented acorn year of 2010 caused an unprecedented
    mouse year in 2011.  More abundant mice leads to better survival of larval
    blacklegged ticks and higher rates of infection, because mice are the best
    wildlife reservoir for the Lyme disease bacterium.  The likely consequence
    is a higher than normal abundance of infected nymphs in 2012.  This
    prediction is based on data we have published
    in peer-reviewed scientific papers and
    summarized in my 2011 book on Lyme disease.  Neither Dr. Telford nor Dr.
    Pollack state any objections to any of this.  They seem to be concerned
    about using science to make predictions, period.  I think it would be
    unconscionable for me to NOT make the public aware of this very real
    possibility, especially since it’s the taxpayers that fund this research
    through federal granting agencies.  Wagering beer on a serious public
    health threat to hundreds of thousands of people seems frivolous.

     

    It’s worth considering the
    consequences of either Dr. Telford’s or my prediction being wrong.  If
    your listeners and readers accept Telford’s prediction that this coming season
    will be just like any other (plus or minus 5% difference) and fail to take
    extra precautions, but Telford’s prediction underestimates the severity of
    risk, then many of these people will unnecessarily become ill.  If they
    accept my prediction and take extra precautions, but I’m wrong and it’s in fact
    a year of normal risk, then cases of Lyme disease will likely be prevented.

     

    Of course there are contingencies that could affect our
    predictions.  That’s the beauty and frustration of studying nature. 
    A massive forest fire or 100 year drought or flood might kill enough ticks that
    the predicted bad year doesn’t materialize, although there is no evidence that
    normal vagaries of weather affect tick populations substantially.  I stand
    by our predictions and will be collecting the data to test them.

    Richard S. Ostfeld, PhD, Senior Scientist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY

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