By: Gabrielle D’Angelo
While it has been hotly debated if Malaria transmission will be affected by climate change for some time, scientists are now starting to look at the effect of climate change on other vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme Disease. Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and can spread to humans if they are bitten by an infected tick. The early symptoms of Lyme disease in humans include fever, chills, arthralgia, myalgia, fatigue, and an erythema migraines rash. However, if left untreated it can lead to more complicated symptoms like heart palpitations, facial palsy, nerve pain, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Luckily, the disease can be treated with antibiotics and if found early patients can expect a complete recovery. Ticks and Lyme disease are both commonly found in the Northeastern United States.
Ticks thrive in humid, warm environments, with the summer months of June and July seeing the highest rates of infection. However, the director of the Johns Hopkins Rheumatology Lyme Disease Research Center, Dr. John Aucott, has noticed ticks present in his own backyard as early as this February. The correlation between climate change and the increase in Lyme Disease risk could be attributed to many different factors. An increase in temperature creates a better environment for the ticks themselves to thrive and also leads to a better environment for mice with increased reproduction rates. These mice are often carriers of both the bacteria and ticks that lead to Lyme disease. In fact, New York and other cities saw an increase in their mice population in 2016, which is believed to contribute to the incidence of Lyme Disease this spring. The 2016 mice population is a suitable indicator because these mice allow for infection of the tick larvae that developed into the nymphs we will see this spring, which will be feeding on humans. Additionally, the unseasonably warm weather that has been present for most of this winter has increased the amount of time that people engage in outdoor activities. Spending more time in a tick’s natural environment increases a person’s chance of exposure and subsequent risk of infection for Lyme disease. It has even been noticed that the regions where ticks are normally present have also started to grow further north, south, and west. However, the jury is still out on whether or not climate change is solely to blame for this expansion.
Fortunately, a person can reduce their risk of Lyme disease if they remain vigilant and take the recommended precautions. Those who are planning to go on hikes and spend a large amount of time outdoors, especially in the states where the most Lyme disease cases are reported, should wear protective clothing, apply DEET repellents, remain on well-marked paths, and perform thorough tick checks once indoors.