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Sen. Schumer secures first federal funding for Lyme's disease

The first federal funding for Lyme disease in five years has been secured in a budget amendment announced Tuesday, boosting the amount of money available for tick surveillance and disease prevention.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) authored the amendment after calling attention in May to Long Island’s explosive problems with ticks – and tick-borne infections, especially Lyme disease.

The amendment, approved by Congress, secures $12 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to step up its combat against ticks and the illnesses they cause, the senator said.

“Long Island has been feeling the brutal bite of Lyme disease and tick-borne illnesses for years now, and thankfully this long-overdue increase in CDC funding will give us the resources we need to strike back,” Schumer said in a statement Tuesday.

From 2013 to 2015, there were 2,129 cases of Lyme disease on Long Island, according to the State Department of Health, which documented 240 of those cases in Nassau and 1,889 in Suffolk. Federal and state health experts have long said the reported number of cases is probably a dramatic undercount of the actual tally of Lyme disease cases.  

The infection is bacterial transmitted by the bite of the black-legged tick, also called the deer tick. The bugs can transmit other infectious agents in the same bite.

In addition, hundreds of cases of a serious allergy to red meat are being reported on the East End, the result of bites from the lone star tick. The condition is called alpha-gal allergy, shorthand for a reaction to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, a complex carbohydrate that occurs among non-human mammals. Ticks pick it up from animals they’ve bitten and pass it along when biting people.

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Long Island is home to multiple tick species and a broad range of animals that harbor them, said John Rasweiler, an animal physiologist and member of the Suffolk County Tick Control Advisory Committee.

While people think of the white-footed mouse and deer as primary animal carriers of ticks, the number of animals that host the bugs abound – birds, voles and shrews, said Rasweiler, a decades-long resident of Cutchogue.

“First of all, I congratulate Sen. Schumer for trying to get some assistance. But what we need are workable solutions. That’s what is missing,” Rasweiler said. “I am afraid money may be thrown at plans that are unworkable. For example, using pesticides — acaricides — which are pesticides specifically directed against ticks.”

The problem with acaricides is their tendency to also kill beneficial insects, particularly pollinators, like honeybees, Rasweiler said.

He advocates thinning deer herds on the East End as one way to eliminate the problem, a notion that is not politically popular. 

Ellen Wexler, a Southold resident, also supports herd-thinning to decrease cases of Lyme disease, which she has developed twice – and so has her husband.

“We’re exhausted,” Wexler said of fighting ticks. “We’ve pulled many ticks off this summer.

“Mowing the lawn is a threat now,” she said. “My husband has to mow the lawn in high rubber boots. This is not an unusual story. This is happening to everybody here.”

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