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White-footed mouse a foot soldier against Lyme disease

A white-footed mouse at Caleb Smith State Park

A white-footed mouse at Caleb Smith State Park in Smithtown on Sept. 13, 2003. Photo Credit: Natural World/Bill Davis

Vaccinating Long Island’s legions of white-footed mice against the bacteria that cause Lyme disease could dramatically reduce the tick-transmitted infection in Nassau and Suffolk residents.

That isn’t a radical idea. A growing number of scientists say it’s possible to intervene with bacterial transmission in the wild as a way to prevent human infections.

The white-footed mouse is widespread on the Island and harbors the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. Black-legged ticks are prolific parasites on the mice and spread the pathogen to people after feeding on the rodents’ blood.

More than half of ticks isolated and studied in multiple Suffolk County jurisdictions were found to be infected with the bacteria, according to a report released earlier this year.

Fortunately, technology has emerged to make mice immune to Borrelia burgdorferi and break the chain of mouse-to-tick-to-human transmission. A vaccine manufactured to mimic a tasty treat can attract hungry mice and immunize them. Nassau and Suffolk health officials should consider field testing a mouse vaccination strategy in the broader interest of human public health.

Lyme disease is a formidable illness on the Island. From 2013 to 2017, the most recent years for complete statistics, there were 3,578 documented cases in the two counties. While 522 of the cases occurred in Nassau, 3,056 infections involved Suffolk residents. As striking as those totals are, health agencies have long underscored that the reported number of Lyme disease cases is probably an undercount. Some people with mild symptoms probably skip medical care and are never tallied.

Many residents on the East End have favored thinning deer herds as a way to lower the prevalence of ticks (the black-legged tick is also known as the deer tick), but the mice are far more populous Islandwide. White-footed mice inhabit wooded areas and shrubbery, the same habitats favored by the black-legged tick.

A five-year field trial overseen by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, a village in Dutchess County, found a 76 percent reduction in infected ticks by the fifth year of baiting the animals with the vaccine. The New York findings inspired Connecticut officials to undertake a similar vaccination strategy by distributing the bait in areas inhabited by white-footed mice. A final report on the Connecticut effort is expected to be published in a scientific journal in the coming months.

Vaccinating mice is not far-fetched because New York state wildlife authorities already oversee a raccoon vaccination program, which has successfully eliminated rabies transmission caused by the animals.

Given that precedent, a similar vaccination program that targets white-footed mice has the potential to reverse years of mounting Lyme disease statistics. The infection can cause rashes, muscle weakness, severe joint pain, and in advanced cases, brain damage. Vaccination against Lyme doesn't prevent other tick-borne infections that also are harbored by mice, just the disease that has become most prevalent.

The vaccine that’s furthest along is manufactured by US Biologic, a biotechnology company that has as one of its founders, Dr. Maria Gomes-Solecki, a former Lyme disease researcher at Stony Brook University. Another vaccine aimed at the white-footed mouse has been proposed by Dr. Alan Barbour at the University of California, Irvine, an advocate of vaccinating the mice.

Gomes-Solecki, now a scientist at the University of Tennessee, invented the kibble vaccine that can be distributed in habitat areas of white-footed mice. The vaccine is based on an outer surface protein of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, specifically the OSP-A, or outer surface protein-A, the same target of a shelved Lyme disease vaccine for people.

The vaccine is environmentally friendly and doesn’t harm the mice, just vaccinates them, and in so doing, could indirectly protect countless Long Islanders from Lyme disease.

Delthia Ricks is a former Newsday health writer.

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