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Lyme disease is a threat, but other tick-borne illnesses are on the rise, too

Western black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks (Ixodes pacificus) male above, female below.
Jon Cox
Creative commons photo
Western black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks (Ixodes pacificus) male above, female below.

May and June are the most common months for ticks to be active around New York, including in the Adirondacks and North Country. Lyme disease is the most common illness caused by ticks, but there are others to be aware of this time of year, says Dr. Brian Leydet, assistant professor of epidemiology and disease ecology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse.

Dr. Brian Leydet, assistant professor of epidemiology and disease ecology studies ticks and tick-borne diseases at SUNY ESF in Syracuse.
Photo courtesy of Brian Leydet
Dr. Brian Leydet, assistant professor of epidemiology and disease ecology studies ticks and tick-borne diseases at SUNY ESF in Syracuse.

DR. BRIAN LEYDET: We're seeing, here in central New York and the Adirondacks, the expansion of two other pathogens associated with the same tick, the black-legged tick that spreads Lyme disease. Those pathogens are anaplasma, which is a bacterial pathogen, and then babesia, which is a protozoa pathogen similar to malaria, spread by the same tick. You can even find ticks that have all three of these pathogens in one tick. So one bite, three diseases. Now, most of these diseases start out as a flu-like illness and to get a flu-like illness in May is a little weird, right? It's COVID or it's probably a tick-borne disease if you've been out hiking around. So you have to be on the lookout for, 'hey, I was just recently out there and got a tick on me, or maybe my hiking partner got a tick on me, so we were in a tick area and now I'm feeling down, feeling sick, weakness, fever.

We think about Lyme disease and think about the bullseye rash, right? Well, usually, it's not even a bullseye rash. It's just this red, expanding rash and a lot of times people don't even see it. So I like to get people to think less about that specific symptom, because we'd be like, 'why didn't have a rash?' You still got Lyme disease, right? So think about these general symptoms— just feeling unwell after being in a ticky area, that's their best bet, and then going to the physician and talking about that with the physician, and hopefully the physician is aware, and can then use that as differentials to try to figure out what is going on in an individual's case.

EMILY RUSSELL: So I've got a dog and he's vaccinated against Lyme, and he takes pills to protect himself against ticks. Why don't we have that kind of treatment for humans?

DR. LEYDET: Right, well we did actually. In the early 2000s, there was a Lyme vaccine. GlaxoSmithKline had a vaccine that was readily available to individuals. The problem was that during that time was the height of the anti-vaccine movement with the MMR associated with autism, which was eventually found out to be completely fabricated data. And there were some studies that came out that linked the vaccine to potentially some autoimmune issues in hamsters. Now, I'm not a hamster, you're not a hamster. And the FDA showed that it didn't happen in humans. But it just got really bad press. And GSK said, Look, we're done with this, we're pulling it.

Now it's been revived by a French company called Valneva and they have removed the questionable piece of this vaccine that was linked to this autoimmunity in hamsters and they're actually in phase three trials. If you're on social media, you probably have seen an ad for children, they're doing it in adults. So I would expect probably in the next five years, that would be something available to people that are at high risk for Lyme disease. Now, that doesn't protect you from all the other pathogens this organism can carry. So you don't want to have that false sense of security. Because with the data coming out of areas like Central New York, even the data coming out of the Adirondacks at the sites that are being sampled, we're seeing the occurrence of pathogens like anaplasma and babesia as high as 10-15% of the ticks carrying it. So while your body may be able to fight off the Lyme disease pathogen, you still got anaplasma, you still got babesia, so we need to be careful with being complacent after we get that vaccine.

Life stages and relative size of black-legged (deer) tick.
Life stages and relative size of black-legged (deer) tick.

RUSSELL: Is there anything that keeps you up at night when it comes to ticks and the diseases they spread?

DR. LEYDET: You know, what keeps me up at night? Well, my kids. I'm terrified that my kids will get that and I've had a couple of encounters in the yard. And I think one thing we hear about Lyme disease or about chronic Lyme disease or something known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. And it's a real thing. We don't know what's causing it, there's probably multifactorial causes towards it, science is working on it. But what we do know is that people that get Lyme disease— 10 to 15% of them have persistent symptoms similar to long COVID. I think about my children, because if you look at Lyme disease cases, there's two major groups of people that get Lyme disease, children from five to 10 and older adults from 65 and up, and I don't want my child to get Lyme disease and live for the rest of their life with persistent symptoms. That's not cool. So it keeps you up at night. So I tried to do my best to obviously protect my family but protect my five-year-old and my two-year-old from getting bit.

RUSSELL: How do you balance getting outside enjoying nature and protecting yourself and your family against ticks?

DR. LEYDET: I love going outside. I'm outside all the time and I don't get ticks. So prevention means are very effective. I think in the past probably five years I've been at tick sites working and I've been bitten by one tick and I noticed it within 24 hours. It was a simple black-legged tick. I was terrified. I called my friend, who is an infectious disease doctor and I got prescribed antibiotics because I was terrified because I knew that it probably was carrying the Lyme pathogen.

So what do we do? Well, we are tick aware. My children know about ticks. I'm going to my kid's classroom in a couple of weeks to teach his kindergarten class about ticks. Very basic things like how to identify a tick, where they are, how to protect yourself, and how do you protect yourself. That's the biggest thing right now. One thing I'm really vigilant at is using permethrin which is a parasite, which kills the tick. And that doesn't repel, it kills the tick. It's a spray that you can buy at any sports store or any large department store. And it doesn't go on your skin, so follow instructions when you're applying this. You apply it to your clothes and once it dries, it can sit there for a couple of laundry cycles. And it's really good at killing ticks when they tried to attach to you.

When we're out there in an area where there are a lot of ticks or in a habitat where I know there are a lot of ticks, I will tuck my pants into my socks. And people say why do you do that? Well, it's because, going back to this idea— ticks don't fly, they don't fall off trees, they don't drop from branches, they on little twigs and grasses and they attach to your socks, your pants, and they climb upward. And then obviously afterwards, even when you do all that, I still do tick checks. I'm always checking myself. I tell people I know every mole on my body and when something's new, it's a tick. How do you get the tick off? Well, you don't burn it, you don't put Vaseline on it, you just take fine tip tweezers, grab right at the base of the skin and just pull directly out in slow motion and they'll pop out. As long as you get the majority of it out as soon as possible, you know within 24 hours, you'll really decrease your likelihood of disease transmission. Then I tell people to ultimately save that tick because if you do get sick, go to the doctor with it and say 'hey doc, a week ago we were out hiking at the Wilmington Notch and we found this tick on my kid. I took it off now they're acting ill,' that may help the doctor make a diagnosis for you or a loved one.

Emily Russell covers the Adirondack State Park for NCPR.