Finding a deer tick bite is only part of the battle in fighting the crippling diseases the miniscule creatures can carry.
Undiscovered bites can manifest in tick-borne illnesses that are sometimes tough to diagnose for a physician who doesn’t recognize the symptoms. When left undetected, these diseases can lead to long-term medical conditions that are very difficult to treat.
More than 17,000 people across the Capital Region contracted diseases transmitted by ticks between 2002 and 2011, according to state Department of Health figures. And with an anticipated rise in the population of ticks this season, the number of reported illnesses is only expected to grow.
Experts are saying the extraordinarily mild winter allowed more ticks to survive. This population was then able to grow uncommonly quickly because of the warm temperatures during the spring.
“We’ve seen tick-borne illnesses spiking in recent years and we need some extra action because things are going to be particularly bad this year,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said during a conference call Wednesday.
Schumer is co-sponsoring federal legislation with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that proposes to expand research into Lyme disease, improve education and require the secretary of Health and Human Services to produce a report educating health professionals about the latest research on the disease. The legislation was included as part of a health and human services authorization bill this month and has bipartisan support, according to New York’s senior senator.
“This bill has a good chance of passing,” he said.
In a related development earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, jointly announced the inclusion of $8.7 million in the fiscal year 2012 federal budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study Lyme disease. They are also seeking congressional approval of a Tick Borne Advisory Council to coordinate the identification of tick-borne diseases and determine the best treatment routes for the medical community.
In advocating for the Senate legislation, Schumer stressed the importance of educating the public about the emerging diseases spread by ticks so that there is greater awareness. He said educational programs could help people learn about the conditions associated with tick-borne ailments such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, granyloctic anaplasmosis and monocytic ehrlichiosis.
The legislation would also educate physicians on emerging tick-borne illnesses. It would also establish treatment plans for those cases, create a reporting system to advise health professionals on treatment options and better coordinate the efforts of local health departments with the treatment of community health centers.
“We should pass this bill now to empower parents, kids and health care providers to help squash this pest and the diseases it passes along,” he said.
Columbia County had the highest number of ticked-related diseases diagnosed in the 10-county area comprising the Capital Region, according to the Health Department. Schenectady County had 496 cases of tick-borne diseases identified during the past decade.
Awareness is critical in combating the spread of tick-borne illnesses, said Chris Logue, the executive director of Schenectady County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension. He said people need to realize when they are entering areas likely to have tick populations and take the proper precautions.
“If you’re in an area where you know there are a lot of ticks, you need to be vigilant at the end of the day and check for them,” he said. “It takes a significant amount of time for the pathogens to be transmitted.”
These areas include any place where woodland animals — such as deer or mice — dwell. This also includes transition areas between wooded areas and fields, where vegetation extends above the knee.
Logue said ticks can typically live in temperatures as low as 40 degrees. He said this year’s mild temperatures will most likely mean a greater number this year.
“It’s certainly going to be challenging,” he said.