Share this article

print logo

Tick encounters on the rise, could worsen with climate change

They're coming in greater numbers seeking to suck your blood. Tick populations are on the rise across Western New York, and experts say there are even new species emerging from faraway places as the climate changes.

With ticks, come disease.

Diagnoses of tick-borne diseases – like Lyme disease – have increased over the decade. Although Lyme cases dipped by 25 percent in Erie County in 2018 from the record-high 89 cases it logged in the previous year, county health department data shows diagnoses of the disease have quintupled since the start of the decade.

What’s driving the increases in tick reports?

Some might be due to heightened awareness of tick-borne illness. Scientists also think a warming climate, increases in the deer population and suburban sprawl might be putting more ticks in contact with people.

“It’s probably a combination of all of them,” said Bryon Backenson, deputy director of communicable disease control for the New York State Department of Health.

Tick movement

Timothy O’Day, a long-time wildlife rehabilitator, operates the Campbell Environmental Center in Boston. He has noticed an uptick in the number of ticks and even some new pests that he has never seen before. He blames a changing climate with helping fuel the proliferation of ticks.

“It’s a concern,” O’Day said. “They’re on our doorstep.”

Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said ticks become active any time the temperature is over about 45 degrees. With spring averaging warmer temperatures earlier in the year and autumn lasting longer, tick season has expanded.

“There are more opportunities for ticks to reproduce,” Burstein said.

Other ticks have continued to expand their geographical ranges in the eastern United States.

The lone star tick is one of them.

Once confined south of the Ohio Valley and in the southeastern United States, a recent study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found the lone star tick now occupies “almost all of New York State.” It’s also now established in the western Great Lakes, Pennsylvania and in some parts of New England.

All of that happened over the last 15 years.

“That tick clearly is coming up in an uneven swath,” said Thomas Mather, a nationally renowned tick expert and a professor at the University of Rhode Island. “It definitely is moving up.”

[Know your ticks: The CDC's Tick ID]

The lone star tick, which is distinguished by a white dot on the back of an adult female, is an aggressive species and can transmit various diseases, including a rare infectious bacterial disease – human monocytic ehrlichiosis – which can result in kidney failure and breathing problems. Emerging research suggests the tick’s bite can also trigger a severe allergic reaction to red meat.

“The lone star tick was in the southern U.S. for a long time,” Backenson said. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen it creep up the East Coast.”

Early research suggests it might be winning a tick competition of sorts.

“Lone star ticks have become predominant ticks on the eastern end of Long Island,” Mather said. “They don’t see as many blacklegged ticks as they used to.”

“That could be a concern as that tick moves into more populated areas,” Mather added.

Blacklegged ticks, lone star ticks and another species, the Gulf Coast tick, all use white tailed deer as a host.

Although the Gulf Coast tick hasn’t yet been found in New York State, there’s concern climate change could cause a northward spread of the tick that federal disease experts said can spread a form of spotted fever.

The Asian longhorned tick. (CDC)

The Asian longhorned tick came from even farther away, although it’s still unknown how they landed in the Western Hemisphere.

Reported for the first time in the U.S. in 2017 when it was found on sheep in New Jersey, the longhorned tick has been linked to serious diseases in other parts of the world, including a potentially fatal hemorrhagic fever. It was the first new introduction of an invasive tick species in the U.S. in a half-century, according to a National Geographic report quoting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers are still learning about the longhorned ticks and their potential impact in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the biggest concerns? “The female ticks can lay eggs and reproduce without mating,” the CDC reported.

Besides New Jersey, the longhorned ticks have also been discovered in New York and 10 other eastern states as of Aug. 1, CDC data shows.

The first bite of a human in the U.S. – a Westchester County man – was documented in a medical journal earlier this spring. The victim reportedly didn’t get sick from the bite.

Blacklegged tick

The blacklegged tick, or "deer tick," remains public enemy No. 1 for medical professionals in Western New York when it comes to ticks.

It’s the one that carries Lyme disease. The rapid increase in deer populations and suburban sprawl is also believed to be contributing to the spread of Lyme disease.

“We’re seeing more cases of Lyme disease in Erie County,” said Burstein, the health commissioner. “We have a very large and growing deer population. There is the vector that carries the ticks that carry Lyme disease into our neighborhoods.”

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that left untreated can lead to irreversible neurological damage as well as heart and joint problems.

Reported cases of Lyme Disease, 2017. (CDC)

The blacklegged tick, and reported Lyme disease cases, have been rapidly spreading farther inland from New England and northeastern coastal states over the last few decades.

“We have not seen a dramatic infection rate in ticks, we’re just seeing more ticks in more places,” said Mather, the tick expert and professor at the University of Rhode Island.

Lyme disease, although treatable with antibiotics, attracts the most attention of tick-borne illnesses because there are about 7,000 new cases reported in New York every year.

Most of those occur east of Western New York, but overall cases in Erie County have trended up since 2000.

Western New York’s population patterns play a role in putting residents in closer contact with wildlife, and the ticks that come with them, increasing risk for disease.

“Buffalo is a town of suburbs,” said O’Day, the wildlife rehabilitator.

“It’s a terrible (pest). There’s nothing good about it,” O’Day said. “You’re transmitting bodily fluids. And bodily fluids contain viruses.”

Lethal bite

Earlier this month, a man in Ulster County died as the result of a suspected bite from a blacklegged tick. It wasn’t Lyme Disease, though. It was Powassan virus.

Although much rarer, Powassan virus – which kills more than 1 in 10 people who get it – is one of many diseases linked to the blacklegged tick.

“That, I think, is a very rare event," Mather said.

“You’re probably looking at about 50,000 to 60,000 tick bites every single year,” Backenson said. “Powassan virus accounts for 0 to 6 cases per year.”

As part of the statewide tick surveillance program, Backenson said, health department scientists go out across the state, catch ticks and bring them back to their laboratory and test them for several different pathogens. Lyme disease and Powassan virus are two of them.

Others include:

• Babesiosis, a parasite infecting red blood cells, which account for 500 cases annually.
• Anaplasmosis, a bacterial infection that’s grown from a few hundred cases per year to more than 1,000 in recent years.
• Borrelia miyamotoi, which causes a relapsing fever and accounts for about 100 cases statewide every year.

“All of the five are carried by the black-legged tick,” Backenson said. “The reason we focus on them is because that’s the most commonly found tick in New York State.”

Bite prevention

There are things you can do to prevent becoming a blood meal for ticks.

Staying vigilant and doing regular checks for ticks after being in outdoor areas with long grass is a big one.

Health officials also advise staying on marked trails and out of long grass when hiking.

Wearing long pants and tucking them into socks is another good idea. And use bug spray with DEET.

If you find a tick on you, properly removing it is also important.

Want to take it a step further? You can be a citizen scientist. The University of Rhode Island’s TickSpotters has a crowd-sourced tick survey on its TickEncounter website. By submitting tick photos and submitting information, you help researchers like Mather track ticks across North America.

“It helps educate people about ticks and increases awareness,” Mather said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment