Suffolk County released a task force report on tick- and mosquito-transmitted infections Thursday and called on Long Island physicians to better familiarize themselves with the growing number of infectious diseases transmitted by the insects.
A 15-member task force called for a tick surveillance program to help guide a stepped-up public health effort against the arthropods, known carriers of a multitude of infectious disease-causing organisms.
Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referring to a disease transmitted by a carrier insect. The agency estimates about 30,000 cases of Lyme nationwide annually. Bolstering efforts against vector-borne infections will help reduce the disease burden in the greater local population, experts said Thursday.
“Our approach is multipronged and comprises the efforts and expertise of several county departments,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement Thursday.
Although an increasingly bright spotlight has been focused in recent months on the Latin American Zika scare, the local tick population has remained a steady source of disease transmission, county public health officials said.
“We encourage doctors to become familiar with case definitions and to consider vector-borne diseases when diagnosing patients,” said Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk County health commissioner.
In addition to Lyme, ticks are capable of carrying a long list of infectious agents and causing immeasurable amounts of pain and misery, such as human anaplasmosis; babesiosis and ehrlichiosis. The creatures also transmit Borrelia miyamotoi, a so-called spirochete — corkscrew-shaped bacterium — identified in recent years as the cause of a relapsing fever. Powassan virus is yet another infectious agent transmitted by ticks.
Three years ago, an analysis of ticks revealed that at least 6 percent in a sample of 13,000 collected by state health department biologists, who canvassed parts of the Hudson Valley and surrounding suburbs, were carriers of the Powassan virus. The virus has since made its way to Long Island.
“We know that one is actually here. It’s at a very low rate, but that’s one [of the pathogens] the state is interested in testing,” said Dr. Scott Campbell, chief of Suffolk’s arthropod disease laboratory and head of the task force.
Ticks are seasonal menaces, he said, and capable of carrying and transmitting diseases caused by a wide range of pathogens — bacteria, protozoa and viruses.
Powassan virus was named after Powassan, Ontario in Canada, the place where it was first recognized when a boy contracted it and died as a result of the infection. Scientists have known of Powassan virus since 1958. The CDC has counted only 60 cases of the viral infection over the past 10 years. But it is important to maintain a watchful eye on ticks because of the wide range of pathogens they are capable of transmitting, CDC scientists said.
Campbell said Suffolk County was already acting on the task force recommendation that calls for tick monitoring. The surveillance program, he said, is aimed at 10 strategic sites throughout Suffolk for the tick counterpart to the vast mosquito surveillance efforts conducted by both counties annually.
With ticks, however, traps are not set the way they are for swarming mosquitoes.
“We flag for ticks,” Campbell said, describing the unusual method the county employs to catch the eight-legged creatures “It’s like a handle of a broom and attached to it is a cloth, corduroy.”
The flag is dragged through low-lying vegetation where ticks nest. Insects caught on the cloth are then isolated for analysis.
Mosquito surveillance has been stepped up this year, Campbell added, noting that his laboratory is working in collaboration with the state health department to monitor the stealthy insects for evidence of Zika as well as West Nile and Eastern equine encephalitis viruses.