In battle against ticks, most burden still lies on humans to avoid bites

In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, rests on a plant. (CDC via AP, File)
In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, rests on a plant. (CDC via AP, File)

Don't ask state entomologist Kirby Stafford if this is going to be a bad year for ticks.

"The ticks are always out there," Stafford said. "It's going to be a bad tick year, this year and every year."

Amid rising reported levels of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses — including some that can be fatal — public health experts say that while efforts are underway to limit tick populations and the infection rates in the insects and mammals that host them, most of the burden of preventing tick bites and the diseases they cause lies with humans.

Long-established prevention habits like spraying lawns, using bug spray with DEET and the chemical permethrin, wearing long pants in the woods and checking for ticks every time people come inside are still standbys.

While the tick population — which Stafford measures by the number of ticks submitted to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, fluctuates year to year, he said a relatively warm, wet winter in 2017 provided an environment for tick larvae to flourish. While cold snaps and drier winters can limit the number of larvae that hatch in the early spring, their numbers aren't going down, and especially not in a year with a lot of snow.

"They're doing great," he said. "The snow is an insulator."

And they continue to spread disease: The rate of ticks testing positive for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, is about 30 percent.

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control said in a recent report that cases of tick-borne illnesses doubled between 2004 and 2016, and previously unseen diseases are emerging in the United States.

The report identified state and local public health agencies as the "main defense" against the spread of the diseases, stressing public education efforts like those being considered by a Lyme disease task force the local Ledge Light Health District assembled this year.

Randall Nelson, who retired as the state public health veterinarian with the Department of Health Epidemiology and Emerging Infections Program last week, said reported Lyme disease rates fluctuate throughout the year but increase during the summer when people start spending more time outside.

"We have to have infected ticks, and we have to have people that come in contact with them," he said.

And there are plenty of infected ticks. In 2017, more than 2,000 cases of confirmed or probable cases of Lyme disease were reported to the Department of Public Health — almost 300 more reported cases than in 2016.

New London County had the fourth-highest rate of Lyme infection — 97.8 reported cases per 100,000 people — behind Middlesex, Windham and Litchfield counties.

But that number may not even come close to actual rates of Lyme, which causes fever, headache, fatigue and a distinctive bull's-eye-shaped skin rash and can be treated with antibiotics.

"We know that Lyme disease is under-treated and under-diagnosed," Nelson said. "The numbers are an estimated trend at best ... we've been estimating for years that it's anywhere from five to 10 times that number."

Rates of babesiosis — a parasitic disease that infects red blood cells and, like Lyme, is carried by deer ticks — are lower but have gone up dramatically in recent years, Nelson said.

Bob Johnson said his lawn care company has fielded increasing numbers of requests for tick spray over the last six years. Now as summer starts, between 10 and 15 people are calling a day.

"We're inundated, let's put it that way," he said.

The crews at Johnson's company, Safe Lawns of Salem, have fielded requests from many homeowners in southeastern Connecticut who are first-time customers, newly concerned about the spread of Lyme and other diseases.

"People are concerned about kids, pets and themselves," he said. "A lot of them have had Lyme before, and they don't want it again."

Albert Patalano spent several days at Yale New Haven Hospital after contracting babesiosis from a tick bite in Massachusetts in the summer of 2015.

The disease, typically spread by young deer ticks in the nymph stage in areas with woods, brush or grass, nearly caused Patalano's kidneys to fail and temporarily left him unable to walk.

He said he hires a service to mow his lawn and diligently uses bug spray to protect himself against another tick bite.

"I don't cut my own grass anymore," he said. "It was terrible, just terrible."

With little public support for thinning deer populations and limits on where pesticides can be applied, Nelson said efforts to control tick populations have a limited effect.

Stafford is researching the use of parasitic fungi and bait boxes for rodents to control deer ticks, as well as an oral bait vaccine for rodents that could reduce the prevalence of Lyme bacteria in the ticks that feed on them. He also is overseeing the installation of devices that rub permethrin on feeding deer on Mason's Island.

But, Nelson said, "the truth of the matter is it's very difficult to employ these methods on a large enough scale." A human vaccine for Lyme disease, he added, is in development but won't likely be available for several years.

So Connecticut residents — whether they live in the woods or the city — will need to take it upon themselves to keep ticks off themselves instead of hoping they just go away.

"What is most beautiful and what we enjoy about the state is something we have to take seriously," Nelson said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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