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U.S. senator pushes plan from group to fight ticks on Long Island

Long Island is home to multiple tick species

Long Island is home to multiple tick species and a broad range of animals that harbor them. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Ticks do not die off in fall and winter as once largely believed, which means the disease-carrying creatures must be fought year-round, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Monday.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) released the findings of a new Working Group Report, which took two years to craft, by a national panel of medical, public health and scientific experts. The Working Group called tick-borne diseases a serious threat and emphasized the need for better methods of detecting tick-transmitted infections and developing a vaccine against Lyme disease, the most prevalent tick-borne condition.

He told Newsday on Monday that he is calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to act on the Working Group’s directives. He wants more research, better medical treatment and more comprehensive physician and public education about tick-borne infections.

“We need better diagnostic tests. The ones we have now have too many false negatives and false positives,” said Schumer, the Senate minority leader. “And, unfortunately, we still have a large number of physicians who don't recognize the subtler symptoms of Lyme disease.

“New York is the epicenter of Lyme disease. We have more Lyme than any other state, and probably any other place in the world,” added Schumer, who had a tick-transmitted bacterial infection a decade ago after walking through a brushy area of the Hudson Valley inspecting dams.

His call for a greater emphasis on ticks and tick-borne diseases comes as a new tick — the Longhorned — has spread throughout New York, including Long Island, said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Babylon.

The tick reproduces through parthenogenesis — cloning itself — and has a reputation for feeding on livestock en masse, draining animals of their blood. The tick has been found in Suffolk County, she said, but is not yet associated with carrying or transmitting a pathogen. The tick is believed to have originated in China.

Schumer said doctors and scientists have to be aware of ticks' year-round threat. In August, he announced the first federal funding for Lyme disease in five years, money secured in a budget amendment that he authored. The $12 million funding boost was aimed at bolstering tick surveillance and disease prevention.

Next spring, a series of symposia under the auspices of Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine will be aimed at educating primary care physicians about tick-transmitted infections, said Dr. Luis Marcos, a specialist in internal medicine and infectious diseases.

The web-based instructional sessions will be designed primarily for private-practice doctors who are usually the first medical professionals to encounter patients with Lyme or other tick-borne infections, Marcos said.

“We just got the grant from the state and we want to start them in March and April of next year,” Marcos said of the sessions, adding that Suffolk residents disproportionately suffer from tick-borne illnesses.

He specified Monday that Suffolk has the highest number of tick-borne infections nationwide. Marcos attributed the infection rate to the region's deeply forested and brushy terrain and its abundance of animals that harbor ticks — deer and white-footed mice.

The New York State Department of Health tallied 128 cases of Lyme disease in Nassau County in 2017 and 523 in Suffolk. Those numbers do not reflect the actual number, experts say, because milder cases often go undiagnosed.

Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious diseases specialist at both North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, said Lyme is only one of multiple diseases transmitted by ticks.

Beyond the Lyme bacterium, ticks on Long Island have been found to harbor babesia and anaplasma. Babesia are protozoa, or parasitic, infectious agents that hone in on red blood cells, similar to the way a malaria parasite invades the same cells.

Anaplasmosis is an infection caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum. It can trigger aches, fever, chills and confusion.

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