The family is destroyed by tiny black-legged ticks, or deer, a pin-sized creature that can carry Lyme disease and other diseases. Byce picked two of the ticks from her body last week, part of a regime that has become a constant concern in the family’s semi-rural family, located about 30 miles northeast of Columbus, Ohio’s capital.
“It’s really dressed up for kids, when they’re in the backyard, I sprinkle them like a maniac, which is the kind of intimidation they get,”; Byce said. “I feel like some of their careless childhood is being taken away, but there is a risk of a lot of damage. What is scary is that I am the most diligent person with spraying, keeping track, being careful, controlling ticks. If I can take them with me, anyone can. “
This Byce may, in all her life, never hear of the love-ticks for the heat until quarreling around them as early as February of each year is a possible symptom of a warming climate that, scientists say, is helping to push ticks in the north and west of their traditional ranges in the northeastern US.
Cases of Lyme disease, a potentially degrading condition transmitted mainly by black-footed ticks, have doubled over the past two decades to about 30,000 cases a year in the US. These ticks have spread to the upper borders of New England and the Midwest, while other species of ticks normally found in warmer southern states, such as long ticks and solitary star ticks, are now appearing in New York and New Jersey.
Infections can now spread further, ironically, due to the restrictions placed on curbing the spread of Covid-19. National parks and hiking groups have reported huge booms in the number of people seeking to break the blockage monotony by heading for footpaths, risking contact with ticks associated with humans as they clear vegetation.
“We know thousands of people who check out new trails and parks because they have no other options,” Byce said. “If you do not know what to look for in sign areas, it becomes problematic.”
Clearing forests for shelter and other infrastructure is bringing people into closer contact with disease-carrying animals, such as ticks. Meanwhile, rising temperatures are allowing ticks to become active at the beginning of the year and then feed deep into the fall, giving them a better chance of surviving the winter. While ticks usually target animals like deer and chicks, humans can inadvertently become hosts for their blood meal.
“It’s a nightmare scenario,” said Felicia Keesing, a professor of biology at Bard College who co-authored research linking the heat of the climate crisis to higher tick activity. “We are seeing more diseases affected in more places. Wherever you find ticks, they are spreading.”
Keesing lives in New York in the upstate and has recently noticed more strollers nearby than he can ever remember in the past. Her region has had Lyme disease for decades, but is now being attacked by a host of new bacterial, tick-borne diseases, including anaplasmosis, which can cause fever and chills, and a rare but “scary” called the Powazan virus, which can be fatal.
“We are getting new pathogens from old ticks as well as new ticks growing from the south with new conditions,” she said.
A friend of Keesing’s recently got sick and was tested for coronavirus, only to find out, through a casual conversation with Keesing, that she probably had a tick-borne disease. A test came back positive for Lyme disease and Kesiing’s friend is now on antibiotics, worried she may suffer from the long-term effects of muscle aches, fatigue and mental blurring that can invigorate patients for years.
“With this Covid pandemic some people have the impression that bacteria are easily treatable with antibiotics and that viruses like the coronavirus are the real threat,” Kesiing said. “But not all bacteria are easy to treat, which suffer from Lyme suffering. We need to do a better job of preventing tick-borne diseases and diagnosing them quickly as well.”