One thing is certain when it comes to reducing the number of ticks and substantially lowering Lyme disease in a given area, according to a panel of three experts Tuesday evening at All Saints Church in Syracuse.
There is no silver bullet, they said. Simply reducing deer numbers isn’t enough. It will take a multi-prong approach – including paying close attention to the way one dresses when they go outside, landscaping their property in certain ways and dealing with the numbers and habitat of white-footed mice in the immediate proximity.
“Lyme disease is affected by several complicated factors and pecking away at any one of them is probably insufficient for really making an impact on the epidemiology of the disease,” said Brian Underwood, a wildlife biologist for USGS-Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and SUNY-ESF.
Bottom line: Will substantially reducing the number of deer have a positive impact? “Absolutely,” responded Underwood, who has been studying deer and deer behavior for more than 30 years.
Research has shown that the numbers have to be reduced, though, to no more than 6 to 8 deer per square mile to really make a difference, added Joellen Lampman, from NYS Integrated Pest Management, who discussed landscaping options one can do on their property to help minimize exposure to ticks. She said keeping deer numbers down will require continual effort. A SUNY ESF study of the east side of Syracuse concluded there are an estimated 15 deer per square mile — and as many as 40 in some places.
That said, many non-lethal options, with sterilization at the top of the list, have been tried and proven ineffective, said Underwood who personally was involved in such a project for 17 years on Long Island. It’s been proven ineffective in Ithaca as well.
The 2 ½-hour meeting, attended by about nearly 30 people including Syracuse Common Counselor Nader Maroun, was sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension. The speakers were Underwood; Lampman and Quoc Nguyen, M.D., medical director of the Onondaga County Health Department, who talked about Lyme disease symptoms, diagnosis, and prevention.
The topic is timely as Onondaga County Legislature Chairman Ryan McMahon, R-Syracuse, announced this week he wants the county to apply for a state permit to bait and kill the deer around his neighborhood on the far West Side of Syracuse and the town of Onondaga.
At the same time, McMahon said he wants the county health department to work on a master plan to manage the deer population and fight Lyme disease across all of Onondaga County.
Underwood explained that Lyme disease is the result of three factors: A vector or source of the disease (the deer tick), a host that the ticks bite to spread it (it’s mostly the white-footed mouse, but chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, raccoons — even song birds, can be carriers) and a big mammal to act as a host for adult ticks before they lay their eggs and to carry the ticks around (deer).
He said deer act like a “bus,” carrying the ticks from one area to another. Underwood and the others emphasized that deer don’t contract the disease. They just are the prime blood source for adult ticks, who in their two-year life cycle feed on them just before laying eggs. Each year, a single deer can generate as many as 1.5 million ticks.
Nguyen noted that Onondaga County is classified by the state Department of Health as a “hyper-endemic” county when it comes to Lyme disease, noting that testing has shown more than 20 percent of the ticks in the county carry the bacterium. A sampling deer ticks last year at Green Lakes State Park by state Department of Health staffers found that 56.3 percent of the adult deer ticks checked were carrying the Lyme Disease bacterium, and 26.9 percent of the nymphs.
He noted Lyme disease is going up in Onondaga County, citing a state Department of Health figura of 130 cases reported last year. He said that number is confirmed cases where individuals tested positive for the disease, but added it is only an estimate based on a mathematical model used by the state. The model is used in Onondaga and other counties across the state where there are high rates of Lyme disease, he said, because there just isn’t enough time to interview and followup on all the individuals who have it those areas, or in some cases Lyme disease is not being reported.
He said that Lyme disease is often hard to diagnose, but that symptoms such as a bull’s-eye rash, facial palsy and meningitis are good indicators. He said it gets complicated when symptoms are such things as flu-like symptoms, arthritis, intermittent pain in tendons, short-term memory problems, among other things.
He said Lyme is a complex disease and he emphasized “personal protection.” If you have an encounter with a tick recently and you think you have Lyme disease it is imperative you find a physician who’s well trained in the disease. The worst times for contracting Lyme disease, he said, is during the spring and early summer months from tick nymphs, and during the fall from adult ticks that need a blood host to lay their eggs.
Lampman and Underwood stressed that “personal protection” in tick-infested areas is incredibly important, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks and shoes. Light-colored clothes are best so you can see the ticks. Spraying you clothes and shoes ahead of time with permethrin, a chemical that kills ticks, is a good step. Finally, giving yourself a complete body check when you get inside is always a good idea.
Lampman urged those in the audience to “think like a tick and a mouse” in determining what clothes to wear and how they landscapes their yards.
Lampman emphasized that deer ticks like cool, moist places with dense vegetation. She said they die in situations that are “dry and hot.” She noted ticks can survive one wash on your clothes in a washing machine, but will die after 20 minutes in a hot dryer.
She said if you have lots of vegetation on your property, it’s a good idea to create wide open, mowed areas separating them from your house, and not putting too much shrubbery or other plants close to your home.
As for mice, she recommended placement of “tick tubes,” open-ended containers filled with permythern-soaked cotton or some other material that mice will take for nesting material and bring into their nests. The result is the permethrin kills the ticks on the adult mice and their young.
The tubes are available at local stores or can be ordered online, she said.