The snow has melted. Grass is greening. Trees are beginning to bud. People and their pets are beginning to spend more time outdoors.
The return of spring after a long winter should be a time of unmitigated joy. And it would be were it not a season also welcomed by those miserable little eight-legged tormentors of man and beast alike — ticks.
Ticks, particularly the black-legged deer tick, are notorious for their ability to spread disease to humans. The most common tick-borne disease is Lyme disease, which has reached epidemic status in New England. But new tick-borne diseases are being reported now in Massachusetts, including one viral infection that may end up being even more dangerous than Lyme.
Tick-borne diseases are rapidly becoming a public health crisis in the Northeast, if they are not already. Yet Massachusetts is spending next to nothing to combat these diseases, educate the public about their risks, or control tick populations, according to a report by Beth Daley of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Two years ago, a special state Lyme commission suggested a modest investment of less than $300,000 for a public education program, yet no money has been set aside, and the commission’s other specific recommendations — from promoting more awareness in the medical community to better disease surveillance — have not been adopted, Daley wrote.
“The state needs to step up to the plate,” Larry Dapsis, deer-tick project coordinator and entomologist for Barnstable County, which funds the state’s only county tick-education program. Tracking the West Nile virus in mosquitoes can be like “looking for a needle in a haystack,” Dapsis told Daley. “For ticks we look at the landscape and, well, it’s scary.”
The rough winter’s heavy snow was a boon for ticks, keeping them insulated from cold temperatures. Entomologists expect a bumper crop of ticks this season, meaning a greater chance for people to be bitten and possibly infected.
Lyme infects at least 5,500 people in Massachusetts each year. But federal officials believe the disease’s infection rate may be grossly underreported, perhaps by a factor of 10. The Centers for Disease Control now believe Lyme may infect possibly 300,000 people a year, largely in the Northeast, Daley reported. In Massachusetts, there may be 50,000 people infected per year.
If caught early, most Lyme cases can be treated with a course of antibiotics. But left untreated, it can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system, causing such symptoms as facial paralysis, arthritis and tingling sensations and, in some cases, death.
Now there are new tick-borne diseases appearing in Massachusetts. The Lone Star tick, which can transmit several pathogens and spark a bizarre allergy to red meat, took up residence on the Massachusetts mainland last year in Sandy Neck Beach Park in West Barnstable. A new human tick-borne disease caused by Borrelia miyamotoi bacteria has yet to be named. It was reported in the Northeast in 2013 and is being found in people in Massachusetts. In 2014, Cape Cod Hospital had 26 cases.
There have been cases of a tick-borne virus — Powassan virus — reported in Massachusetts. An evolved form of the virus is now carried by the deer tick — the same species that transmits Lyme.
Powassan has the potential to be a bigger public health threat than Lyme, according to the Yale School of Public Health. Powassan attacks the nervous system and in severe cases causes encephalitis. Death occurs in 10 percent of those who develop a severe infection and serious neurological complications can occur in those who survive.
Disturbingly, Powassan virus is transmitted from tick to human much more quickly than Lyme, possibly within an hour of a bite.
Tick-borne diseases pose a serious public health threat, one that is not being matched by the state’s commitment to addressing it.