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More ticks, more disease

Blacklegged (deer) tick (Photo provided — Lennart Tange)

PAUL SMITHS — The number of ticks infected with Lyme disease is on the rise in the North Country, and now some are carrying a malaria-like illness, according to new research by Paul Smith’s College, in collaboration with the state Department of Health.

Paul Smith’s College biology professor Lee Ann Sporn, a team of students and Adirondack Watershed Institute stewards have been collecting black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, which are tested by the Department of Health for disease-causing agents. They’ve focused primarily on St. Lawrence, Clinton, Franklin and Essex counties.

The researchers also recently found ticks carrying the agent that causes human babesiosis for the first time ever in the North Country. Babesiosis is a malaria-like illness historically encountered in southeastern New York and coastal New England. It typically presents with fever, chills, sweats, fatigue, and anemia. The infection can be very serious in the elderly, people without a spleen, those with poor immune systems and if left untreated. Babesiosis is treated with standard antimalarial medications.

While cases of Lyme disease statewide have seen a 50-percent increase over the past 13 years, counties in the Adirondacks have seen a twenty-fold jump in the same period. Sporn added, however, that the findings aren’t a cause for alarm, but rather awareness.

“It’s not hard to protect yourself from a tick bite if you’re aware the risk is there,” she said in a press release.

Preventing a bite is as simple as wearing light-colored clothing, tucking pants into socks, wearing an insect repellent and remembering to check oneself head-to-toe for ticks at the end of the day.

Sporn added that May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, a timely reminder for all state residents to be vigilant for ticks and take actions to prevent tick-borne illness.

Paul Smith’s College field researchers, who collect ticks by dragging cloths across the forest floor, have found that tick populations are still patchy in the North Country. High-density areas are typically found at lower-elevation sites, but blacklegged ticks can be found throughout the region.

While tick bites can happen year-round, even on 40-plus-degree days in the winter, both people and pets are especially susceptible from mid-May through July, when nymphs are out seeking hosts. These young ticks are small and more difficult to spot.

Nearly half of the adult blacklegged ticks and a quarter of the nymphs collected in North Country counties tested positive for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, also known as Borrelia burgdorferi.

One potential predictor of Lyme disease risk in humans is cases in dogs, since they are often more likely to encounter ticks than their owners. In Franklin County, 26 percent of dogs tested show exposure to Borrelia burgdorferi (capcvet.org). The number of human cases of Lyme disease reported in Franklin, as well as Clinton and Essex counties, increased by nearly 200 percent from 2012 to 2015.

Paul Smith’s College researchers and the state Department of Health collect and test ticks for five different pathogens that could affect humans. While Lyme disease is a major focus in the Adirondacks, this summer researchers will further investigate the prevalence of the pathogen causing babesiosis, which was found in about 12 percent of adult blacklegged ticks in an area near the border of Clinton and Essex counties last year.

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