More than Lyme: Beware other tick-borne diseases

Infected ticks in the Hudson Valley can spread other illnesses that locals need to be vigilant against

Photo of Tracy Ziemer

They’re the size of an apple seed or smaller but can really pack a wallop. Ticks are more than just annoying uninvited guests that crash just about every outdoor barbecue, hike and backyard hangout in New York — they also can spread dangerous diseases, like Lyme.

Overall tick-borne diseases more than doubled in the U.S. between 2004 and 2016, with Lyme disease — which is transmitted through the bite of infected blacklegged, or deer ticks — accounting for 82 percent of all cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There are more than 300,000 estimated new cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. every year, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, while the CDC, who recognizes that Lyme often goes underreported, says that number could be more than 400,000.

But other types of tick-borne illness have also increased. And while these lesser-known diseases are more rare than Lyme, they can be more dangerous — further underscoring why it’s so crucial to be vigilant in guarding against ticks.

“There are less than half as many cases as any other tick-borne disease as compared to Lyme,” said Dr. Richard Ostfeld, a senior scientist at Millbrook’s Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

He named babesiosis and anaplasmosis as two of the more common (non-Lyme) tick-borne diseases in our area. “The problem is both of them can be more severe than Lyme. They are more likely to cause hospitalization than Lyme disease is,” Ostfeld said. “Even though they are less prevalent, they … are important diseases in their own right. The patterns of growth they are showing is concerning.”

Protecting yourself from tick bites is imperative in places like the Hudson Valley, a hotbed for tick-borne illness. And it’s crucial to be aware of the following lesser-known but potentially severe diseases that can be transmitted by ticks and have been reported here:

Anaplasmosis — transmitted to humans primarily by the blacklegged tick and the western blacklegged tick (also known as a deer tick). Those who get infected by the bacteria Anaplasma phagocytophilum will likely experience a fever, headache, chills and muscle aches. Cases of anaplasmosis peaked in 2017, with 5,762 cases nationwide, and dipped in 2018, the last year data is available from the CDC.

Babesiosis — also transmitted by the blacklegged tick and caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells. The reactions in infected humans can range from asymptomatic to life threatening in those who have weakened immune systems. More common symptoms are described as flu-like (fever, sweats, body aches, nausea or fatigue).

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) — transmitted by the American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and the brown dog tick here in the U.S. This is one of the deadliest tick-borne diseases if not identified and treated early with the proper antibiotic. Those who get infected by RMSF can expect to experience a fever, headache and rash. There were 6,248 cases of RMSF in the U.S. in 2017, with that number dropping slightly in 2018, according to the CDC.

Tularemia — transmitted to humans by the dog tick, the wood tick, and the lone star tick, as well as via contact with infected animals. This disease can be fatal to rabbits and rodents on a large scale when there is an outbreak. Symptoms of tularemia can vary widely in humans, according to the CDC, depending on how the person got infected. In addition to fever, a common sign of the disease is a skin ulcer where the bacteria entered the body, as well as swelling of the lymph glands. More serious cases can include chest pain and difficulty breathing, or a sore throat or mouth ulcers if infected via contaminated food or water. Tularemia has been reported in every state, but overall cases are rare; there were only 229 confirmed cases in 2018.

If you are bitten by a tick, remove it carefully with tweezers and place it in a plastic bag that you can then put in the freezer to store while you monitor your symptoms, said Ostfeld. If you start to feel ill, you can bring the tick with you to your doctor.

Vigilance is the best protection against any tick-borne disease, whether it’s Lyme or something else. It is because of this range of additional diseases that Ostfeld is concerned about people developing an overconfidence with tick prevention when a Lyme vaccine comes to market.

“I am a little worried that people who get a vaccine against Lyme might falsely think they’re protected against all the threats from ticks,” he said. “They might then relax their vigilance against tick bites. They might stop using repellents, protective clothing, doing tick checks … it will still be important to protect yourself against ticks because of the other diseases they can transmit.”

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