Robert Miller: A respite, though brief, from ticks
When it comes to black-legged ticks, never let down your guard. But maybe in a week or two, relax a bit, for a bit.
In a tidal-wave year for ticks, we’re beginning an ebb that will last until the fall. As tick numbers decline, so does the chance of getting Lyme disease, or babesiosis or anaplasmosis. Or some dreadful combination of those three.
“The numbers start to decline in early to mid-July,” said Neeta Connally, associate professor of biological and environmental science at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and director of its Connally Tick Lab. “But the numbers are still pretty high.”
“It’s getting to the end of the nymph season for black-legged ticks,” said Kirby Stafford, state entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. “We’re still seeing dog ticks out there. But those adults only feed on our pets.”
By common consent of anyone who walked through high grass or brushy woods this year, ticks were everywhere.
Part of this had to do with 2015’s huge acorn crop. Lots of acorns meant plenty of food for the scurrying class of white-footed mice and chipmunks. Well-fed rodents produce more babies, so that in 2016 there was a ready supply of rodents to provide ticks with blood meals. In turn, 2017 was a good year for ticks.
There is a debate on how much this year’s mild, albeit snowy, winter helped the ticks survive.
Stafford holds that the winter did play a part.
“To kill ticks, you need it cold and dry,” he said. “Snow is a nice blanket.”
Connally is more skeptical about Connecticut winters ever denting tick numbers.
“These ticks live in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the winters are much colder,” she said.
What is clear is that, in the winter of 2017, there were unexpected, snow-melting warm spells. In that weather, people walking on bare ground started finding ticks in February and March — much earlier than normal.
What’s unclear is whether all the extra ticks will translate to more cases of Lyme disease.
Dr. Paul Nee, an infectious disease specialist at Danbury Hospital, said it’s too early to know how many Lyme disease cases the hospital will see this year. That’s because many victims don’t start manifesting Lyme symptoms until weeks after they’ve been infected, he said.
But Nee said the number of cases of anaplasmosis — caused by a different bacteria than Lyme — and babesiosis — caused by a tick-born parasite — are up, by numbers Nee called “epic.”
“In June 2016, we had 38 cases of anaplasmosis,” he said. “In June 2017, we had 80 cases.”
The state Department of Public Health doesn’t have any tick-related disease results for 2017.
But its results for 2016 show the time-worn pattern. The worst months of the year for Lyme disease — by far — are June and July. In June 2016, there were 243 cases; in July, 232.
By August 2016, that had crashed to 50 cases and continued to decline throughout the year.
“It has to do with the life cycle of the tick,” said Dr. Randall Nelson, state veterinarian at the state Department of Public Health, and its tick expert. “It’s been that way for years.”
The state health department statistics also show that in Connecticut, people in their 60s are the age group most likely to get Lyme disease. Outdoorsy Silver Panthers are obviously fair game for ticks.
They also show, surprisingly, that the number of cases of Lyme disease in the state have declined steadily over the past seven years. Nelson said that might be due to all the Lyme disease education in the state is finally sinking in.
“People in Connecticut know about Lyme disease,” he said.
But Nelson said doctors, hospitals and laboratories might not be bothering to report Lyme cases to the state.
“We may have report fatigue,” he said.
By fall, the nymphal black-legged ticks will emerge as blood-meal-seeking adults. Because they’re bigger, we can see them more easily, and remove them more quickly. Ignore them and they still can make you sick.
And they will be back. Connecticut, with it moist, leaf-littered woods and fields, is a great place for ticks to live. If climate change makes the state warmer, so much the better for them.
“It’s Connecticut,” said Nee of Danbury Hospital. “In Arizona, you worry about scorpions. Here, it’s ticks.”
Contact Robert Miller at email@example.com