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Suffolk County vs. ticks: New research to help the fight

A Lone Star tick on the finger of

A Lone Star tick on the finger of Dr. Scott Campbell, director of Suffolk County's Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory in Yaphank, on Tuesday. The ticks are named for the white spot on the adult female's back; males do not have that feature. Photo Credit: John Roca

An in-depth study of ticks across Suffolk County and the pathogens they carry is a first-of-its-kind portrait of the arachnids and the infectious diseases they transmit in the county, the national epicenter of Lyme disease.

The research, which took three years to complete, includes details on the variety of tick species that inhabit Suffolk's 10 towns and the animals that are their common hosts, such as deer and white-footed mice.

Tick-borne pathogens identified in the analysis include a broad range of microbes, from the dangerous Powassan virus, which is newly emerging in the county, to several forms of bacteria and a parasitic protozoan that spawns a malaria-like disease. 

“This information can be used by jurisdictions to develop tick-related strategies and by medical providers to evaluate patients for tick-borne diseases,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement, noting that the findings are a way to enhance public health measures.

Suffolk’s Tick and Vector-Borne Diseases Task Force, a panel of experts from medical, public health and scientific institutions throughout the county, recommended the analysis because of Suffolk’s seasonal battle with ticks and the serious infections their parasitic pathogens cause.

Since 1986, more than 95,000 cases of Lyme disease have been reported in Suffolk, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tick specimens used in the research were taken from each of the 10 towns. The research was conducted in collaboration with the state Department of Health, and is ongoing. More details can be found here. The data by town represent a single collection site within each town and are not representative of the entire town.

The analysis comes as the presence of Powassan virus, a new tick-borne infectious agent that causes damage to the central nervous system, was confirmed in ticks in Suffolk two weeks ago by Dr. Scott Campbell, director of the county’s Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory in Yaphank.

Campbell emphasized there has been no evidence of human Powassan infections in Suffolk. The virus first was identified in Ontario, Canada, in the late 1950s and was detected in upstate New York a few years ago. The pathogen was the cause of a New Jersey man’s death in May, according to that state’s department of public health.

Ticks, which like spiders and scorpions are eight-legged arachnids, flourish in wooded and grassy areas — the type of terrain across much of Suffolk. The county has both a high rate of Lyme disease, about 500 to 700 cases annually, and a significant number of infections caused by other tick-transmitted pathogens.

“We encourage doctors to become familiar with case definitions and to consider vector-borne diseases when diagnosing patients,” said Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk’s health commissioner. “We also encourage our residents to be vigilant and take the necessary steps to avoid vector-borne diseases.”

Summer is the peak season for ticks. Earlier this month, the county launched a tick education program aimed at children and adults.

Data from the new three-year analysis found that infected ticks — those carrying a microorganism — are within the normal range expected by state health officials. Rates of infected ticks varied by township. For example, an infection rate of 66 percent was found for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, among ticks tested from the Shelter Island collection site, while 62 percent of ticks from the Huntington site carried the bacteria and 50 percent from the Babylon site were infected with it.

Using the Babylon data as an example, that means half of the ticks tested from that collection site were positive for the Lyme bacterium; the other half were negative.

Lyme disease can cause a wide range of symptoms: fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain are common. About 70 percent of patients develop a bull's-eye-shaped rash at the site of the tick bite. The infection can be cured with the antibiotic doxycycline, doctors say.

In addition to the Lyme bacterium, the bloodsucking bugs were found to be carriers, to a lesser extent, of Ehrlichia chaffeensis, which causes the bacterial disease ehrlichiosis. Suffolk ticks also transmit the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum, which causes the infection called anaplasmosis. Treatment with doxycycline also is effective for ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis.

Another pathogen reported in the study — Babesia microti, a malaria-like protozoan — can lead to severe anemia because it infiltrates red blood cells. The microbes cause an infection called babesiosis.

Documentary filmmaker Glenn Andreiev, 58, a Kings Park resident, became severely ill with babesiosis in 2017 after being bitten. He had been tramping through wooded areas near his home, as well as in the Muttontown Preserve in Nassau County, searching for a location to shoot a documentary. It took a few days for symptoms to emerge.

As the disease took hold, he lost consciousness. Andreiev, who is in good health now, said in an interview this week that he was so sick at the time he had to be rushed by ambulance to St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown.

The infection initially seemed to masquerade as the flu, he said. At the hospital, doctors successfully treated him with the same medications prescribed for patients with malaria.

“I never felt a tick bite. Never,” Andreiev said.

Dr. Luis Marcos, a specialist in infectious diseases at Stony Brook University Hospital, who was not involved in the study, said certain tick-borne illnesses are routinely diagnosed in Suffolk.

“Lyme disease is the infection we see most often, then babesiosis,” he said.

Marcos added that patients treated at Stony Brook sometimes have both Lyme bacteria and the babesia parasite in their blood, suggesting that ticks encountered by patients were carriers of both organisms.

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