Ticks Study on Island

February 2020
By Ellanora

About 32% of ticks on Fishers Island are infected with Lyme Disease. This is based on 37 ticks which were found on Fishers Island during 4 separate days in October and November. The majority of these were found on dogs.

Context
Over the course of this fall, as part of my science curriculum at the Fishers Island School, I studied the ecology of ticks and tick-borne disease in Connecticut and on Fishers Island. I collected ticks from early September until the middle of November and sent them to a lab in Arizona to test for a number of diseases.

Lyme Disease
Lyme Disease is the most common tick-borne illness in North America and Europe.3 The CDC estimated in 2015 that there are about 329,000 cases of Lyme Disease each year in the United States alone.4

Although the symptoms of Lyme Disease were first documented by German scientist Alfred Buchwald over 130 years ago, the disease began to be defined in the mid-1970s in Lyme, Connecticut.5

The disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi which travels through the bloodstream from the place of the bite and establishes itself in body tissue.6

Short term symptoms of Lyme Disease can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headaches
  • neck stiffness
Bullseye Rash

The most characteristic symptom of Lyme Disease is the erythema migrans rash (pictured above7) which appears as a bullseye around the location of the bite.

If the disease is untreated further rashes, joint pain, and neurological problems can occur.8

Even after regular treatment with antibiotics, some patients experience symptoms more than 6 months after finishing treatment. This is known as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS) or chronic Lyme disease. Symptoms can include:

  • pain
  • fatigue
  • difficulty thinking

This phenomenon is not well-understood, some believe that the reported symptoms are not related to Lyme Disease, and there is no proven treatment.9 It is difficult to estimate the number of patients with PTLDS but a recent study placed it somewhere between 69,011 and 1,523,869 people in 2016, increasing to as high as 1,944,189 people in 2020.10

Lyme is difficult to diagnose because many of its common symptoms are also associated with other diseases, and at least 25% of patients do not develop its most distinctive symptom, the bullseye rash.

Diagnostic tests look for antibodies in the blood instead of the bacteria itself, so tests can show false negatives if administered too soon after infection. There have also been reports of blood tests showing false positives for Lyme when symptoms are caused by other bacterial infections. As well as the commonly accepted two-tier blood tests, other tests, including urine tests, exist but have not proven to be accurate.11

 Findings

Author Ellanora collecting ticks in Lyme, Connecticut

In all, 50 ticks were collected, all of which were deer ticks. Over half of these were found on dogs being walked along trails on Fishers Island.

Overall, the ticks collected in New London County, Connecticut (Lyme and New London) had a 38% infection rate of Lyme disease and a 13% infection rate of anaplasmosis, another tick-borne disease. These numbers are very similar to the most recent data published by the Connecticut state government. The state’s data, which has been collected over many years, suggests that Lyme Disease infection rates may be increasing in the state of Connecticut.1

The ticks collected on Fishers Island showed an infection rate of 32% for Lyme disease and 5% for relapsing fever. This is very similar to the most recent numbers found in Southold, Long Island by New York and Suffolk County health officials. However, the numbers found by that same study in previous years were much higher which shows that tick infection rates can vary year by year.2

This study appears to be the only available study on the presence of ticks, particularly infected ticks, on Fishers Island. It shows high Lyme disease infection rates which are  equivalent to the rest of Southold and New London County. Both locations are considered  hot-spots for Lyme Disease by the Connecticut government.

The possibility of tick-borne disease on Fishers Island merits further research and public knowledge, especially considering the island has a significantly high seasonal population of out-of-region residents who may be less aware of the dangers of tick-borne disease.

Below is information about the most common tick-borne disease, Lyme Disease, as well as lifestyle techniques to reduce the risk of tick-borne disease.

An image of an adult deer tick. Credit NatGeo

Prevention

Lyme Disease can be avoided by taking precautions every time there is exposure to tick habitat: wooded and grassy areas. Precautions include:

  • Wearing long clothing
  • Wearing insect repellent
  • Showering and drying clothing after exposure

Most importantly, people should thoroughly check their body for ticks after any possible exposure. If ticks are found they can be removed with tweezers.12

It typically takes about 36-48 hours for the disease to be transmitted. If you believe that the tick was embedded for that amount of time, or if symptoms appear, see a doctor.13

Landscaping measures can also be taken to reduce the presence of ticks on lawns or in public places.

Public Knowledge
Public knowledge of Lyme Disease and how to prevent it is key to minimizing infections. Limited studies have been done looking to learn about the public’s knowledge of Lyme Disease prevention tactics. A 2013 study in the Netherlands showed that only 35% of respondents reported a good general knowledge of Lyme Disease.14 A 2013 study by the National Park Service in Maryland showed a lack of knowledge of prevention tactics in employees, visitors, and campers.15 In a 2018 study of residents of Dutchess County, NY, only 70% reported knowing “some” or “a lot” about the disease.16

In addition, there is a perception that ticks are a threat only in suburban and rural areas but in 2017 scientists at Columbia University documented that there is risk of tickborne disease in New York city parks.17 Another study conducted between 2012 and 2015 in Poland showed comparable levels of ticks in rural and urban areas.18 In fact, a 2012 study in the Netherlands showed that 1 out of 5 tick bites occur in urban areas.19

Sources

  1. https://www.norwichbulletin.com/news/20190930/ticks-are-back-eastern-connecticut-is-lyme-disease-hotspot
  2. https://www.suffolkcountyny.gov/Departments/Health-Services/Public-Health/Preventive-Services/Arthropod-borne-Diseases/Tick-Surveillance-Program
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lyme-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20374651
  4. https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid2109.150417
  5. https://www.bayarealyme.org/about-lyme/history-lyme-disease
  6. https://www.aldf.com/lyme-disease/
  7. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47198019
  8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lyme-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20374651
  9. https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/postlds/index.html
  10. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6681-9
  11. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/lyme-disease-diagnostics-research
  12. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lyme-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20374651
  13. https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/transmission/index.html
  14. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-13-225
  15. https://www.nps.gov/ParkScience/articles/parkscience32_2_46-53_jones_et_al_3835.htm
  16. https://www.dutchessny.gov/Tick-Community-Survey-2015-Report-Published-October-2018.pdf
  17. https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2019-05-15/lyme-disease-ticks-a-threat-for-cities-study-suggests
  18. https://parasitesandvectors.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13071-017-2391-2
  19. https://www.rivm.nl/en/news/every-year-300000-tick-bites-in-urban-areas.

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