Photo: PAUL BUCKOWSKI, Albany Times Union
ALBANY – If you have not thought about ticks this spring, it's time.
We know that nobody really wants to think about black-legged, disease-transmitting parasites. But it's May, the ticking season is here and it will take another six months.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this month that tick-borne diseases are rapidly increasing. From 2004 to 2016, the number of Americans suffering from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled. Nine new germs that have been spread by mosquitoes and ticks have been discovered or introduced.
Deer ticks are a big problem especially in New York and the Northeast, where they carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and other diseases. Most of the infections have been reported nationwide.
"In New York, where our cases have increased, their geography has widened," said Bryon Backenson, deputy director of the State Health Department's Bureau of Communicable Disease Control the field for 25 years.
"When I started that long ago, Lyme was in the Long Island and Hudson Valley area," he said. "Then it crawled north to the capital district and now it's up to the Adirondacks and west, now you can get Lyme almost anywhere in the state."
More than 7,500 cases of Lyme were reported in New York in 2016. Cases from 2017 are still ongoing, but it is safe to say that the number has increased, Backenson said.
In the capital region, he said, the number of cases of anaplasmosis, a disease borne by the same ticks carrying Lyme, increased last year, said county health departments. In 2016, 775 cases were reported nationwide, and almost a third in the districts of Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady.
"For the first time we played over 1,000 cases in 2017," he said. "If you go back 15 years ago, we probably have less than 100 cases a year."
So ticks are out and the diseases they carry are increasing. What can you do? Let's start with the basics.
If you're walking, hunting, gardening, or spending time outdoors, officials and tick experts urge you to take these steps:
- Wear long sleeves and pants and bright colors if you can. The long clothes will protect the open skin (especially if you put your pants in your socks) and the bright colors will help you to see and remove a tick more easily.
- wear repellent. The CDC and State Health Department recommend DEET; Backenson also recommends Picaridin or IR3535.
- When you return, remove all clothing and put it in the dryer for 10 minutes. The high heat kills all ticks that could hang on your clothes.
- Take a hot shower or bath and use the time to do a whole body exam on ticks. Ticks in the nymph stage can be as small as a poppy. Have a relative, partner or friend look at your back or other easily missed places.
- If you see a check mark, remove it. If it's already in place, find a fine-needle tweezer, bring it as close to the skin as possible, grab the tick, and pull it straight up. Do not use water, soap or anything else that may irritate the tick. When irritated, it will begin to drool and that is the primary way of transmitting disease.
- If you pulled it out, kill it or send it to a lab to test it. What happens next is where public health and medical professionals diverge, because there is no good test for the diagnosis of Lyme, the most prevalent disease caused by ticks.
If you go to the doctor and they follow CDC guidelines, you will need to take blood and do a two-step serology test to see if you have Lyme disease.
But the first part of this test, according to Holly Ahern, a microbiologist and Lyme expert, teaches that 50 percent of cases lead to a false diagnosis of SUNY Adirondack. In addition, many doctors do not order tests for other possible tick-borne diseases.
Ahern, who advocates more research on diagnosis and testing, works in a Subcommittee of the Federal Government's Tick Repairs Working Group, which was signed in 2016 as part of the 21st Century Healing Act.
She recommends patients to be their own advocates and watch out for flu-like symptoms, especially in summer – fever, pain, fatigue, as well as bullseye rashes and other rashes
The symptoms are often confused for other things, but patients Those who believe that they may be connected to a tick bite or a recent time outdoors should stand by themselves and ask their family doctor to consider taking a course on antibiotics to treat Lyme, Ahern said.
"Personally, I think that's a much better option than just waiting and watching," she said. "The longer you wait, if you have these microbes in them, they will spread to your heart and your joints, and at that point the infection is much harder to treat than at the beginning of the disease."
Physicians will often bark at this option if there has been no official diagnosis, but patients who have lived with chronic Lyme symptoms due to a late or untreated diagnosis say the benefits of antibiotic treatment, if it turns out Lyme far outweigh the disadvantages if not.
"Many people do not understand that they have the right to participate in their own treatment decisions as a patient," said Ahern. "And doctors have the moral and ethical duty to at least listen."
To learn more about ticks, Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, Ahern will hold a series of talks around the capital region this spring.
- 31st May: Town of Queensbury Activity Center at 724 Bay Rd. In Queensbury at 19.00
- 6. June: Burnt Hills United Methodist Church at 816 Saratoga Rd. In Burnt Hills at 19.00
- 12. June: Arkell Foundation Community Center at 55 Montgomery St. in Canajoharie at 18.30