While springtime swarms of bloodthirsty black flies and mosquitoes are common in the cool, moist woods and bogs of the Adirondacks, the disease-carrying ticks that plague southern New York and New England are rare in the northern mountains.
That’s starting to change. Scientific studies have documented that ticks that carry Lyme disease and other maladies have been expanding their range northward, westward and into higher elevations.
A new field study launched this spring will document outbreaks of ticks in the Adirondacks and create a baseline from which to study their spread. The data will not only provide the basis for scientific research, but it will also give residents and hikers information about taking precautions in certain areas and will alert health professionals to watch for tick-borne illnesses.
“It’s a fantastic idea. It’s exactly what we need,” said Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Dutchess County, which has the highest rate of Lyme disease in New York. “If you can catch ticks in the act of expanding into a new area, that’s a fantastic public health benefit.”
A state Senate task force released a report last week recommending state actions to fight Lyme disease, including studying tick populations, killing agents, bait vaccines for mice, public education and research into its links to other diseases and deaths. The task force report cited 462 cases reported through the first week of June in New York and a recent federal estimate of 300,000 new cases annually, with only a fraction actually reported.
Lyme disease was first identified in the 1970s in southern New England. The bacterial infection, which causes joint pain and problems with the heart and nervous system, is spread by black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, because deer and mice are their primary hosts. In New York, the ticks are most prevalent in the mid-Hudson Valley, where five of the state’s nine Lyme-related deaths since 1986 have occurred.
Collection involves dragging a 1-square-meter sheet of white corduroy cloth through underbrush where ticks are perching on foliage with front legs outstretched to grab a passing animal. The field researchers wear disposable white coveralls with the pant legs tucked into their socks so any ticks that cling to them can be easily seen and removed.