Foreboding Infestation

Leisurely strolls through nature are a wonderful part of spring and summer. However, pests and parasites are often present and unwelcome additions to such adventures. Unfortunately, according to a pair of ecologists, this year is going to be particularly dangerous thanks to the dreaded tick, especially in the Northeastern U.S. The husband and wife ecologist team developed a system by which they can predict new cases of Lyme disease simply by looking at the number of mice from the previous year. Rick Ostfeld and Felicia Keesing of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Bard College, respectively, are “…anticipating 2017 to be a particularly risky year for Lyme.”

Mice are efficient little Lyme disease spreaders. They infect 95 percent of the ticks that feed on them with the pathogen that causes the disease. Ostfeld stated, “An individual mouse might have 50, 60, even 100 ticks covering its ears and face.” And, unlike other forest creature, mice do not groom ticks off of themselves, allowing for them to collect on their ears and faces. The Hudson River Valley had heavy populations of mice last year, a bad omen for the Northeast in 2017.

rklopfer/Flickr
Image Credit: rklopfer/Flickr

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that the disease is even spreading to new areas. “Whether it’s a bad season or not, there’s still going to be a lot of human cases of tick-borne diseases,” says epidemiologist Kiersten Kugeler. “What’s important for people to know is that the ticks are spreading to new areas — and tick-borne diseases are coming with them.”

Of Course, We’re to Blame

The CDC estimates that there are 30,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year, but they expect the actual number to be ten times higher. “We think the true burden of Lyme disease in the U.S. is about 300,000 cases,” says Kugler. “Lyme disease is quite a big public health problem.”

Climate change is helping the disease to spread. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) even lists Lyme disease and one of their climate change indicators. Booming deer populations also help to transport ticks and keep them fed.

Additionally, the development of the Hudson River Valley helped play an important part in the disease’s proliferation. Roads, farms, housing, and other human development have broken up the forests of the valley into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are perfect conditions for mice to live, especially since larger animals who might prey upon the mice cannot thrive in such conditions. And with this development comes people. So, more humans, longing to live in these picturesque conditions, build homes in these areas, dropping themselves right in the middle of what are, essentially, breeding grounds for the disease. “So we see that humans are putting themselves in these areas where they’re most at risk,” Keesing says.

So, as you’re frolicking and enjoying your outdoor time in the warm upcoming months, make sure you prepare properly and avoid ticks. Also, remember that it takes about 24 hours for the pathogen to spread from its tick host to you once you are bitten, so make sure that tick checks a part of your daily routine when you spend time outdoors (even in areas where ticks don’t typically reside). Read here to get some more tips on avoiding ticks and what to do if you spot one on your body.