By Gwendolyn Craig
Anaplasmosis, a tick-borne illness with similar symptoms to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is on the rise in the Adirondacks and upstate New York.
It’s a concern for state health officials as more people get outside to fight cabin fever and headlines and resources focus on the pandemic. Some of the symptoms include fever, muscle aches and even respiratory failure, all similar signs of the disease that has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States this year.
Anaplasmosis, if left untreated, can also be fatal.
“It’s a little challenging to cut through COVID (19) news,” said Byron Backenson, deputy director of the state Health Department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Control. He and other officials are reminding healthcare providers about tick-borne illnesses, something that might get forgotten with coronavirus on everyone’s minds.
While Lyme disease tends to get the spotlight and is still the most prevalent tick-borne illness in the state with more than 5,500 new cases each year, local researchers are seeing a trend in increased cases of anaplasmosis.
“That’s one that’s really on the rise, particularly in the northeastern part of New York,” Backenson said, specifically highlighting Washington, Warren, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties.
The state collects data from county health departments and healthcare providers about what tick-borne diseases people are getting, and it also collects ticks to see what bacteria they’re carrying that cause these diseases.
“We can sort of compare what we see in ticks, and what we see in people, and see if that matches up,” Backenson said. “What we do know, there are areas of the state where we see ticks that are much more infected with the bacteria that cause anaplasmosis. What we see in that particular neck of the woods (northeastern New York) is real, so it’s definitely something.”
Not including New York City, the state saw about 300 human cases of anaplasmosis in 2009 but by 2018, records show cases more than tripled.
In 2018, nearly 20 percent of the ticks researchers collected and tested carried the anaplasmosis-associated bacterium in Warren County, home of Lake George. That’s compared to 2009, when no tested ticks carried the bacterium.
Ticks typically thrive in warm, low-elevation woods and fields, but researchers are seeing more in the Adirondacks and at higher elevations.
In Essex County, home of many of the Adirondack High Peaks, Paul Smith’s College Professor Lee Ann Sporn said there were more than 50 human cases of anaplasmosis last year.
“That was a real heads up because it’s easy to miss,” Sporn said, about the disease. “There’s no rash. It’s just a fever and feeling unwell.”
Unlike the unpredictable and often inaccurate test for Lyme disease, Sporn said the test for anaplasmosis is easy. It is often treated with antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
While the density of ticks is still low in the North Country compared to other parts of the state, Sporn’s research is showing higher rates of exposure to tick-borne diseases. She’s not sure why, but one possible theory is that ticks in the Adirondacks are somehow better at transmitting diseases.
Backenson said the health department is also working with Vermont health officials on the conundrum.
Sporn and Backenson are continuing their tick collection studies this summer, though without students and at a slower pace, due to the pandemic.
There’s also very little funding in the state budget to study ticks this year. After a number of schools and organizations requested $1.5 million for tick-related studies, the state budgeted $250,000 to be split among them. Sporn is unsure if any will go toward Paul Smith’s College. The Cloudsplitter Foundation has stepped up, Sporn said, and will fund her research for this summer.
Backenson and Sporn are also worried that unseasoned hikers looking to get out of the house during the pandemic will be unprepared and more likely to get bit by a tick. Ticks are especially a problem from late May through early July, when baby ticks are out. They’re called nymphs, and at about the size of a poppy seed, are difficult to see.
The health department has some best practices to keep yourself safe from getting a tick bite, including:
- Wear light-colored clothes for easy tick detection.
- Tuck pant legs into socks or boots. Tuck shirt into pants.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves.
- Use insect repellant.
- Recreate on clear and well-traveled trails. Avoid dense woods and bushes.
- Bathe or shower after being outside.
- Check clothes and body for ticks.
Some outdoor enthusiasts recommend treating clothes with permethrin, as noted in this Adirondack Almanack article.
If a person does get bit by a tick, the sooner it can be removed, the less likely the tick will transmit any diseases. Fine-pointed tweezers are your friend, Backenson added.
Dogs also tend to pick up ticks easily and can transfer them to their owners. Backenson recommended consulting with your veterinarian for the best way to protect pets from ticks.