Scientists worry that other ailments besides Lyme are making their way to the Adirondacks
By Mike Lynch
While collecting blacklegged ticks at Wickham Marsh near Lake Champlain, Lee Ann Sporn and her son took a break and placed on the ground a white cloth they had been using to collect the poppy-seed-size bugs.
Within minutes, ten or so blacklegged ticks were crawling on the cloth. If Sporn had been sitting down, they might have got on her. The lesson: people who spend time in the Park should be aware of the tick danger.
“We will have to change our behavior, we really will, especially in June,” Sporn said.
Since 2014, Sporn has traveled throughout the Adirondack Park collecting blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks) as part of a joint project with the state Department of Health (DOH) and other organizations to determine the extent of tick-borne diseases in the region. The ticks are tested for four diseases—Lyme, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Borrelia miyamotoi—as well as the Powassan virus.
Sporn, who teaches at Paul Smith’s College, said Lyme disease remains the main threat from ticks in the Adirondacks. In fact, she warns that she’s found tick populations with infection rates as high as 50 percent. However, ticks that carry Lyme can simultaneously carry other diseases, some of which are starting to establish themselves around the edges of the Park.
Blacklegged-tick populations have expanded statewide as deer populations have grown and the climate has gotten wetter and warmer, which ticks prefer. Ticks are also spread by birds that carry them from areas with high tick populations.
Michael Sitton, dean of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, contracted anaplasmosis from a tick bite in late April and was hospitalized for four days. “I had chills and a fever, and the fever eventually got very high—104 degrees,” he said. Luckily for Sitton, who is fifty-nine, the symptoms subsided shortly after he started doxycycline antibiotics.
Common symptoms of anaplasmosis include fever, muscle aches, weakness, and headache. Patients may also experience confusion, nausea, vomiting, and joint pain. Unlike with Lyme disease, a rash is not common. Infection usually produces a mild to moderately severe illness, but it may occasionally be fatal. Symptoms appear one to two weeks after the tick bite (though not every bite from an infected tick results in infection).
Sitton said he picked up the tick while hiking in 1,440-acre Downerville State Forest in central St. Lawrence County. The state forest, which includes a stretch of the Grass River, lies just outside the Adirondack Park; in fact, its eastern edge abuts the Blue Line.
There were three cases of anaplasmosis in 2015 in St. Lawrence County, the most recent year for which DOH could provide data on tick-borne diseases. That year there were 783 cases statewide. These included five in Essex County and one in Hamilton County—the only two counties that lie entirely within the Park. In addition, there were eleven cases in Warren County, sixty-one in Washington County, and fifty in Saratoga County—all counties with some land inside the Park. Some of these people could have contracted the diseases in counties other than those where they live.
Sporn, who researches ticks in the northern part of the Park, including St. Lawrence County, says the ticks she’s collected haven’t carried anaplasmosis.
One disease that may be arriving in the North Country is babesiosis. The microscopic parasite that causes the disease was detected in ticks collected in the Wickham Marsh area last year. “That was a surprise that we found it in pretty high prevalence in the North Country,” Sporn said. “Up until last year, the only disease we found in them was Lyme.”
Babesiosis is a rare disease that is sometimes fatal. It has been compared to malaria and is sometimes treated with quinine, a medication also used for malaria. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, and hemolytic anemia, a condition that destroys red blood cells. The symptoms can last from several days to several months. It may take from one to eight weeks, sometimes longer, for symptoms to appear. There were 583 cases statewide in 2015, mostly in Long Island, Westchester County, and Dutchess County. Twelve cases were recorded in Albany County, and scientists believe tick-borne diseases are moving northward.
Typically, it takes twenty-four hours or more for ticks to transmit disease-causing bacteria or parasites to human hosts, according to DOH. The Powassan virus is different in that it can be transmitted in just ten or fifteen minutes. It can be deadly, and there is no treatment for the virus.
The Powassan virus is extremely rare. Since 2000, New York State has seen only twenty-six confirmed cases. Five of the victims died. There have been three cases this year in Saratoga County, including one death.
Sporn has done a small amount of testing for Powassan but hasn’t detected it in ticks yet. However, it has shown up in mammals she’s tested. She noted that blacklegged ticks became carriers of the disease only in recent years. Previously, it was known to be transmitted only by woodchuck ticks, which rarely bite humans. Sporn said this doesn’t necessarily mean that the virus will become more common among humans, but it should be watched closely by scientists.
While blacklegged-tick populations seem established along the eastern and northwestern edges of the Adirondack Park, they are less common in the Park’s interior. The incidence of tick populations is patchy. They have been found in Wilmington, Keene, and Keene Valley.
Julia Goren, education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club, said a few workers at the club’s Johns Brook Lodge have contracted Lyme disease. The lodge is located on an inholding in the High Peaks Wilderness, a few miles west of the hamlet of Keene Valley. Goren doesn’t know of anyone who got Lyme at the club’s other lodge, at Heart Lake several miles outside Lake Placid.
Wherever blacklegged ticks are found in the Adirondacks, Lyme and potentially other diseases are a danger. “We’ve never found a population of blacklegged ticks in the North Country that hasn’t had an infection with Lyme,” Sporn remarked.