Lyme disease makes every trip to the outdoors a little less fun. The threat of this tick-borne pathogen forces us to take extra precautions every time we venture out into nature. Fortunately, Lyme disease mainly proliferates in a few specific regions of the country, such as the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. The majority of Americans only have to worry about the ticks themselves, and not the diseases they carry. There are still plenty of wilderness areas that lie just outside of Lyme disease hotspots.
However, many of the places that everyone assumes are safe from this disease, may not be in the near future. In fact, we may be facing a massive Lyme disease outbreak this summer, and this event is probably going to spread the disease to areas surrounding the typical hotspots. And unfortunately, most of the people living in those areas have no idea.
That’s the determination of Dr. Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist who currently lives in New York. Ostfeld has found a unique way to tell if there’s about to be a major Lyme disease outbreak. It has to do with how many acorns the forests are producing. The more acorns there are in a given season, the more ticks and Lyme disease there will be. Due to warmer weather conditions, there are a lot more acorns than usual.
So how could a floor of acorns two years ago tell Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, that 2017 would see an outbreak of Lyme disease? It’s all down to what happens next.
A bumper crop of the seeds – “like you were walking on ball bearings” – comes along every two to five years in Millbrook. Crucially, these nutrient-packed meals swell the mouse population: “2016 was a real mouse plague of a year,” he says. And mouse plagues bring tick plagues.
Soon after hatching, young ticks start “questing” – grasping onto grasses or leaves with their hind legs and waving their forelegs, ready to hitch a ride on whatever passes by, usually a mouse.
Once on board, the feast begins. Just one mouse can carry hundreds of immature ticks in their post-larval nymph stage.
This is where the problems for us start. Mouse blood carries the Lyme-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which passes to a tick’s gut as it feeds. The tick itself is unharmed, but each time it latches onto a new host to feed, the bacteria can move from its gut to the blood – including that of any human passers-by.
“We predict the mice population based on the acorns and we predict infected nymph ticks with the mice numbers. Each step has a one year lag,” Ostfeld says.
And this isn’t just a problem for New York. The number of Lyme disease cases is expected to climb throughout the United States and Europe over the next two years. Fortunately, there are measures you can take to avoid Lyme disease no matter where you live.
First, take a look at where this disease has popped up, and see if you live near any of the hotspots. Then look up how to properly remove ticks, and the measures you can take to avoid them in the first place. You should also learn the elusive symptoms of Lyme disease so you can seek medical treatment before the disease ravages your body. And finally, you can purchase natural bug repellents, which are perhaps your best defense against ticks.