By ANTHONY F. HALL
Lyme disease has migrated progressively northward over the last 25 years, spreading into the Lake George region, the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River Valley.
In Warren County, for instance, more than half the ticks sampled in 2018 carried Lyme, according to New York’s Department of Health.
At one site in neighboring Essex County, Paul Smith’s College biology professor Lee Ann Sporn discovered, 85 percent of the ticks collected were infected with Lyme, while a large number carried other human pathogens. Lyme is an inflammatory disease that causes fatigue and can induce joint pain or worse if left untreated.
Sporn’s work has documented the increasing abundance of ticks in northern New York, but currently lacks state funding to continue. Shutting it down could hinder public knowledge of how a changing climate affects tick and disease occurrences.
“Warmer and wetter means more days that the tick can find a host and feed and reproduce, and thus become established,” Sporn said.
For the past five years, Sporn and a team of Paul Smith’s students and Adirondack Watershed Institute stewards have monitored the rapid spread of tick-borne diseases—especially those rarely found this far north or at these elevations—throughout the region.
They’ve documented a twentyfold jump in Lyme disease in the Adirondacks over the past 13 years, an alarming statistic when compared with statewide trends.
These findings are, of course, of scientific interest as the region warms. As Sporn said at a presentation to the Adirondack Park Agency on Feb. 14, “we can’t prove it, but every indicator points to climate change as the driving force” behind the expansion of tick-borne diseases.
But these same findings are also of interest to the New York State Department of Health, which tests the ticks collected by the researchers for human pathogens and adds those findings to its databases, and to county public health officials and physicians.
Dr. Russ Hartung, an emergency room physician at Plattsburgh’s Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, said “the work that Dr. Sporn and her group at Paul Smith’s College has done in keeping our North Country physicians informed about the diseases carried by ticks in this region has been crucial in caring for patients in my practice—especially in recent years as tick-borne illness have become more prevalent in this region.”
The funding that has fueled Sporn’s research—the only systematic program monitoring tick-borne diseases ever conducted in the region—is now at risk.
Sporn told the APA Commissioners “it looks as though it’s probably going to go away.”
According to Sporn, funding for the research has come from the New York State Senate Task Force on Lyme and Other Tick Borne Diseases.
For the past two years, Sen. Betty Little, the region’s Republican senator and a member of the task force, has secured $75,000 line items in the state budget to support the work.
With the Republicans’ loss of control of the Senate, however, both the funds and the task force’s existence are in jeopardy.
“The funding expires in March 2019 and there is currently no contingency plan in place,” Sporn said. “Since our monitoring work begins in May, the funding has to be in place before then.”
Dan Macentee, a spokesman for Sen. Little, said that in addition to the Republicans’ loss of their majority, “a complicating factor is the budget deficit. It is going to be a tough year for line-items, aside from the political shift.”
Nevertheless, Little said, “A continuation of this funding in the new state budget is a priority for me.”
She added, “Because this is a public health issue and not at all partisan, I’m hopeful the Democrat-led Senate will work with us to keep this task force active.”
In the meantime, Sporn is seeking support from elected officials, foundations and state agencies for additional funding.
“Information about where the ticks are and what pathogens they harbor is essential for residents, so they can take precautions, and for health care providers, so they can provide timely diagnosis and proper treatment,” Sporn said. “It is imperative that our work to protect the public health continue.”