'Numbers have been climbing' says Public Health coordinator

Contracting Lyme disease is a risk for Steuben County and Southern Tier residents, but taking some practical prevention measures will lessen the chances significantly, according to public health officials.

Lyme disease is spread by deer ticks, and the optimum time for the insects to attach to people is during the warmer weather months of the year —potentially from the spring through fall, said Gail Wechsler, BSN, RN, a Steuben County Public Health Program coordinator.

According to Public Health officials, there are three main stages of Lyme disease.

- Early localized Lyme disease: A rash develops on the skin at the site of the bite within one to 31 days. It resembles a bull's eye and slowly expands, followed by flu-like symptoms.

- Early Disseminated Lyme Disease: Skin, joint, nervous system and heart complications occur.

- Late Persistent Lyme Disease: Infected person develops severe joint, nervous system and heart complications.

Prevention and early recognition of Lyme disease are critical as the bacteria from a tick bite does not transmit into a person’s bloodstream for 36 to 48 hours, which lessens the chance of contracting the disease if the ticks are found and removed immediately, experts say.

“The biggest concentration of Lyme disease is in the Hudson Valley area, but it has spread throughout the state, so we certainly do see cases here in New York state, in Steuben County. Partly the way that we know that it’s here is our doctors testing for it,” Wechsler confirmed. “So part of it is, I think, more doctors are aware of what Lyme disease is, so I think more doctors are doing testing for it and treating people for it.

“I can tell you that for Steuben County, numbers have been climbing.”

Possible cases of Lyme disease are reported to state and local health departments by health care providers and laboratories. Each year, approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported by state health departments and the District of Columbia, according to the latest U.S. government data.

According to Steuben County Public Health’s Annual Report for 2017, there were 259 Lyme disease “investigations” that year and 113 confirmed cases.

Wechsler said, “Last year (2018) was a lighter year, and I think this year we’re seeing more cases of Lyme disease. Absolutely, it is an issue, which is why again, people need to be checking for ticks. That really is their best prevention.”

The tick season can be quite lengthy, even in the Southern Tier where the cold and snow always seem to overstay their welcome.

“Tick season generally pretty much goes until the first real frost,” Wechsler said. “So it pretty much is throughout the spring and summer, but people can certainly get a tick on them other times of the year. Spring, summer and fall are probably the heaviest seasons for it.

“Deer ticks do live in mostly shady, moist areas. There is tall grass and other shrubs, but they can also be in lawns and gardens, especially if they are near woods.”

What about prevention?

“What people need to do first is to prevent being bitten by ticks,” Wechsler advised. “The best thing to do is obviously avoid those areas if they can, but if they are going to walk in areas where there could be ticks, they should wear light-colored clothing with a tight weave. The tight weave prevents them from getting in but also makes the ticks more easily spottable.

“They certainly should have long sleeves and long pants, and it’s best to tuck your pant legs into your socks if you’re going to be going out because, again, they can get up and into your skin from up your shoes and into your pants.

“Probably the most important thing to do is to do a tick check at the end of the day if you’ve been out in that area. Also check children, too, daily if they could have been in those areas.”

Experts also suggest walking in the center of trails when in wooded areas, avoiding overhanging tress and bushes and keeping long hair tied back. Finally, once inside, wash your body and clothing and inspect yourself for ticks. Inspect your dog’s coat too if he or she has been playing in wooded areas.

New York state has taken a more aggressive approach against Lyme disease in recent years.

A Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Working Group was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May 2018 as part of a plan to control tick populations on public lands, expand data access, and increase public awareness through enhanced education and outreach. A summit was held with the working group members on July 31, 2018 to launch these efforts.

Despite the full-on health focus, Lyme disease remains the most common vector-borne disease in the state, according to the New York State Department of Health. Readers of The Spectator have reached out to the newspaper on the subject, asking about the dangers of the disease and passing on anecdotal stories of several recent tick bites and doctor visits.

Wechsler understands the concerns.

“The most important thing to make sure is that ticks are not on (the skin) very long,” she said. “If they’re not on very long, they really can’t transmit disease. At least for Lyme disease, if they’ve been on there for 36 hours, I would say for more than a day, people may want to talk to their doctors. They should talk to their doctors especially if they develop a rash or have flu-type symptoms and have found a tick.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says early treatment is crucial.

“People treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely,” the CDC reports. “Antibiotics commonly used for oral treatment include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil. People with certain neurological or cardiac forms of illness may require intravenous treatment with antibiotics such as ceftriaxone or penicillin.”