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Health Column: Local tick problems continue to worsen

Last summer, a homeowner in the Nassau Point section of Cutchogue did everything he could to protect himself from contracting a tick-borne illness. He sprayed his lawn with repellent three times and cleared his property of the brush and leaves so attractive to the bloodsucking arachnids. 

“He took every reasonable step,” said neighbor Dr. John Rasweiler, a retired medical school professor and member of Southold Town’s deer management committee and tick working group.

Despite the homeowner’s efforts, he was diagnosed in July 2015 with ehrlichiosis, a bacterial disease transmitted by ticks that causes flu-like symptoms. He ultimately spent three weeks in the hospital.

“This was a man who had seemingly done everything right,” Mr. Rasweiler said. “It’s really frightening.”

According to a newly released report by the Suffolk County Department of Health’s tick and vector-borne diseases task force, the homeowner’s story is demonstrative of a local trend. Between 2010 and 2014, the task force found, the incidence of tick-borne illnesses like ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and anaplasmosis rose each year. Meanwhile, the number of Lyme disease cases reported in that same time period peaked in 2011 but has since dropped off. Overall, the task force found, more cases of common tick-related illnesses were reported on the East End during 2010 and 2014 than anywhere else in Suffolk County.

“It really is a crisis,” said Mr. Rasweiler, who is also a member of the Suffolk County tick control advisory committee. “In my circle of friends and acquaintances, I know three people who are permanently or semi-permanently disabled by Lyme disease and two others who have recently gotten out of the hospital for babesiosis or ehrlichiosis.”

A total of 1,304 Lyme disease cases were reported in Suffolk County between 2010 and 2014, the task force found. Interestingly, 6,124 cases were reported between 1992 and 1996.

The Nassau Point homeowner who contracted ehrlichiosis is unfortunately in good company, with 331 cases reported throughout the county between 2010 and 2014. From 1992 to 1996, there were just two incidences.

The rate of babesiosis, a tick-borne illness caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells, also climbed steadily between 2010 and 2014, with a total of 859 cases. Between 1992 and 1996, there were just 121.

While zero cases of anaplasmosis — another tick-borne disease caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilium — were reported between 1992 and 2009, a total of 152 were recorded between 2010 and 2014.

The overall rise in tick-related illnesses can speculatively be attributed to Suffolk County’s ever-increasing deer population and dense concentration of woodlands, Mr. Rasweiler said. This is particularly true on the East End. Unfortunately, the task force noted in its report, “The amount of information regarding tick-borne pathogens found in Suffolk County is limited and emphasizes the need to better understand this topic.”

While the report’s findings are sobering, Mr. Rasweiler said North Fork residents shouldn’t limit their enjoyment of the outdoors for fear of contracting a tick-borne illness. They should, however, be cautious.

“I’m not going to be defeated or surrender to the bloody ticks,” he said. “We live in such a beautiful area … To be in constant fear of these diseases is a horrible way to live.”

Have a health column idea for Rachel Young? Email her at [email protected].