No insect on Long Island causes as much human misery as ticks, and to help residents prevent bites this summer — peak season for the bloodsucking parasites — Suffolk County health and legislative officials are rolling out a sweeping public health effort.
The campaign arrives as the first evidence has emerged of a rare but extremely serious tick-related pathogen — Powassan virus — which has been found by entomologists in tests of Suffolk ticks. The virus is said to be present at a very low level. There have been no cases of Powassan infection in Suffolk residents, health experts said.
A New Jersey man died in May of a tick-related viral illness, which state health authorities in June confirmed as Powasan, which causes neurological damage.
County Executive Steve Bellone has outlined an ambitious campaign targeting school-age children in summer camps and other outdoor programs. Outreach to adults will occur throughout the summer at more than 20 libraries countywide.
In addition, Bellone announced the expansion of SuffolkSHARE, a public health partnership comprised of towns and municipalities in Suffolk that share costs and resources in the ongoing battle against ticks.
“This shared services initiative is another example of how local governments can leverage their resources to address a regional public health issue,” Bellone said in a statement.
The program is introducing a 311 phone line aimed at providing up-to-date information to callers on tick avoidance, protection and tips on how to respond to bites. The service will serve as a hub for tick-related information. Data collected about tick activity from the 311 line will be shared with local governments.
Dr. Scott Campbell, chief of the Suffolk Department of Health’s Arthropod Disease Laboratory in Yaphank, is leading one-hour educational forums that will be held throughout the summer. Public libraries, as it turns out, have proved to be ideal settings to educate people about ticks, he said.
"I think the patrons are interested in learning about this because it's a topic that is a real part of their lives,” Campbell said.
Suffolk is disproportionately affected by ticks, which have been expanding their range throughout the region for decades. The bugs are carriers of numerous types of pathogens that include Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
Within the last year, a new tick known as the Asian longhorned has emerged on the Island, but is not yet known to be a carrier of a pathogen, Campbell said.
The most common ticks in Suffolk include Ixodes scapularis, also known as the blacklegged or deer tick, and the Lone Star, a tick noted for a conspicuous white spot on its back.
A newly emerging tick-related condition that has affected hundreds of residents, particularly on the East End, is an allergy to red meat. The allergy is known as alpha-gal reaction, a severe response to alpha-galactose, a sugar in tick saliva.
The sugar is present because ticks have bitten mammals that naturally have the sugar. Most mammals, other than humans, have alpha-galactose in their tissues and bloodstream. Humans are allergic to it. The allergy is a newly emerging medical condition caused by tick bites.
"The good news is that the allergy is not permanent," Campbell said, noting that avoidance of red meat — pork, beef, lamb and venison — helps cause severe reactions to subside over time.
Suffolk County health officials have escalated their war on ticks because of the relatively high number of tick-borne infections that are reported among residents annually. The county has the highest rate of Lyme disease nationwide, state and federal data show.
On average, 500 to 700 cases of Lyme disease are reported in Suffolk annually. In 2017, the most recent year for complete statistics, 523 people were treated for Lyme in Suffolk compared with 128 the same year in Nassau.
State health officials said the actual number of people affected by Lyme and other tick-transmitted diseases is probably substantially higher because people with mild symptoms do not seek medical attention. Their cases, therefore, go undocumented.
Experts have attributed the abundance of ticks in Suffolk to its deeply wooded and brushy terrain. Campbell noted that other tick-transmitted diseases include anaplasmosis, which is caused by a bacterium; Rocky Mountain spotted fever, another type of bacterial infection; ehrlichiosis, a bacterial disease that causes flu-like symptoms, and babesiosis, a parasitic condition caused by a malarial-like protozoan.
New to Long Island has been the detection of Powassan virus, said Campblell, who noted that it is possible for a single tick to carry multiple pathogens.
Suffolk Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said for residents who can’t attend a tick information session in person, there are county and state Health Department materials available online.
“To reduce the risk of tick-borne diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes public education,” Tomarken said.
“In addition to our seasonal outreach, the Tick Bite Prevention Education Campaign includes a Tick-Borne Disease newsletter and PowerPoint slide presentation in both English and Spanish, all of which can be downloaded from our website and distributed or used for educational purposes.”
SUFFOLK COUNTY TICK TALKS
Amityville Public Library
July 17, noon-3 p.m.
19 John St., Amityville
Cold Spring Harbor Library
July 18, 7-8:30 p.m.
95 Harbor Rd., Cold Spring Harbor
Comsewogue Public Library
Date and time to be determined
170 Terryville Rd., Port Jefferson Station
Connetquot Public Library
July 22, 1-4 p.m.
760 Ocean Ave., Bohemia
Copiague Memorial Library
July 10, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
50 Deauville Blvd., Copiague
Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library
July 23, 6:30-8 p.m.
27550 Main Rd., Cutchogue
East Islip Public Library
July 16, 7-8:30 p.m.
381 E. Main St., East Islip
East Northport Public Library
Aug. 7, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
185 Larkfield Rd., East Northport
Hampton Bays Public Library
July 11, 7-8:30 p.m.
52 Ponquogue Ave., Hampton Bays
Huntington Public Library-Main Branch
July 11, 10 a.m.-noon
338 Main St., Huntington
Huntington Public Library-Station Branch
July 18, 10 a.m.-noon
1335 New York Ave., Huntington
Islip Public Library
Aug. 5, 1-3 p.m.
Sept. 26, 7-8:30 p.m.
71 Monell Ave., Islip
John Jermain Memorial Library
Sept. 9, 5:30-7 p.m.
201 Main St., Sag Harbor
Northport-East Northport Library
Aug. 6, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
151 Laurel Ave., Northport
Riverhead Free Library
July 15, 6:30-8 p.m.
330 Court St., Riverhead
Southold Free Library
At Southold Presbyterian Church
Aug. 1, 7-8:30 p.m.
53705 Main Rd., Southold
Patchogue Medford Library
Date and time to be determined
54-60 E. Main St., Patchogue
Port Jefferson Village
Date and time to be determined
100 Thompson St., Port Jefferson
West Babylon Public Library
Aug. 19, 7-8:30 p.m.
211 Rte. 109, West Babylon
Westhampton Free Library
July 12, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
July 26, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
7 Library Ave., Westhampton Beach