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Tick-borne diseases on rise in area

Experts note 3 other ailments besides Lyme

Sunday, July 28, 2013
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A deer tick is shown.
A deer tick is shown.

— Two decades after Lyme disease began creeping into the Capital Region, a handful of other tick-borne diseases are starting to become more common in the area.

These diseases include babesiosis, which can result in flu-like symptoms, anaplasmosis, which can cause fever, headache and chills, among other things, and ehrlichiosis, an ailment with similar symptoms.

In 2005, there were 177 cases of babesiosis throughout New York; in 2011, there were 418, according to the state Department of Health. Until recently, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis were considered the same infection. In 2011, there were 350 cases of anaplasmosis, 45 cases of ehrlichiosis and 11 cases that could have been either disease; in 2005, the state reported 350 cases of anaplasmosis.

“These diseases are definitely increasing,” said Bryon Backenson, an epidemiologist in the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control at the DOH. “When people think about tick-borne disease, they think of Lyme. But there are other diseases.”

Backenson said anaplasmosis and babesiosis are migrating north and west much, like Lyme disease, “but with a bit of a time lag.” He said it’s not fully understood why cases of these diseases are increasing 20 years after Lyme disease, once considered more of a downstate phenomenom, began to emerge in the area.

Anaplasmosis and babesiosis are carried by the deer tick, which also carries Lyme disease. Ehrlichiosis is carried by the lone star tick.

In 2005, there was one case of babesiosis in Schenectady County, and no cases of ehrlichiosis. In 2011, there were four cases of anaplasmosis, and none of babesiosis or ehrlichiosis. The numbers were similar in Saratoga County, which reported zero cases of babesiosis in 2005, and no ehrlichiosis; in 2011, the county reported two cases of anaplasmosis, no babesiosis and three cases of ehrlichiosis.

Albany and Rensselaer counties reported more cases of tick-borne illnesses than the rest of the Capital Region.

In 2011 Albany saw 15 cases of anaplasmosis, and five cases of babesiosis, according to DOH, while Rensselaer saw 27 cases of anaplasmosis and four cases of babesiosis. Rensselaer County also reported two cases of ehrlichiosis, while Albany reported one infection that was either ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis.

Babesiosis is less common in the Capital Region, perhaps because it is typically associated with sandy shorelines, Backenson said.

It’s unclear exactly why these illnesses are on the rise, Backenson said. One possibility is that people are spending more time outside.

Deer tick virus

Another emerging tick-borne infection is the deer tick virus. Last week, researchers reported that the deer tick virus is emerging in the Hudson Valley.

“Doctors need to be aware of this pathogen when patients present with encephalitis or even severe fever, particularly if there has been a tick bite,” Laura D. Kramer from the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center Arbovirus Laboratories told a reporter. “And for the general public, it’s another reason that people need to protect themselves against ticks.”

Eva Haughie, a Suffolk County resident who serves as president of the Empire State Lyme Disease Association, said that tick-borne illnesses such as babesiosis and anaplasmosis are nothing new. “They emerged a while ago,” she said.

Haughie said she was diagnosed with babesiosis in 1999. Initially, doctors diagnosed her with Lyme disease, but when her health failed to improve, they began considering other tick-borne diseases. A proper diagnosis is important, she said. “For the most part, people don’t die from [tick-borne illnesses], but they might live a life that’s cut short,” she said.

The number of cases of Lyme disease in New York reported each year still dwarfs the number of cases of other types of tick-borne illnesses.

Statewide, there are between 5,500 and 5,800 cases of Lyme disease annually.

In 2011, Schenectady County reported 79 cases of Lyme disease, while Schoharie County reported 29, Saratoga County 525, Rensselaer County 656, Montgomery County 30, Fulton County eight and Albany County 364.

The chances of being bitten by a tick increase during the time of year when ticks are most active. The baby, or nymphal deer ticks, are active between mid-May and late July, while the adult ticks are active between late September and Thanksgiving. This time of year, tick-borne infections should be on the decline, Backenson said.

Deer ticks are tiny — a young deer tick is about the size of a poppy seed, and an adult deer tick is the size of a sesame seed. The lone star tick, by comparison, is about a quarter-inch long.

“The majority of infections come from nymphal deer ticks,” mainly because they are so small, Backenson said.

Tick-borne diseases are treatable using antibiotics.

Backenson suggested that people should check for tick bites after spending time outside, and that people who are visiting areas known for tick infections should consider wearing long pants, shoes and socks. Insect repellent can also help, he said.

Seventy percent of Lyme disease cases cause a distinctive bulls-eye rash.

“The other diseases can be more severe than Lyme,” Backenson said. “They can be more fatal. But there’s not a real distinctive set of symptoms like Lyme.”

 
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