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Suffolk County releases findings of tick pathogen surveillance program

Suffolk County officials have released the findings of a multi-year study of ticks — and the pathogens they carry — that shows how prevalent tick-borne illnesses have become, especially on the East End.

County health officials worked with the New York State Department of Health on the “tick pathogen surveillance program,” which took three years to complete. The census-like study included collecting ticks from all 10 Suffolk County towns and analyzing them for potential pathogens that pose a threat to human health, such as Lyme disease, babesiosis and the rare but deadly Powassan Virus, which can cause swelling in the brain and continues to spread across the Northeast.

“This information can be used by jurisdictions to develop tick related strategies and by medical providers to evaluate patients for tick-borne diseases that will keep residents healthier and safer,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement Monday.

The most common pathogen identified in Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns was Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease.

Adult deer ticks on Shelter Island and in East Hampton towns were found to have the highest infection rate of Lyme disease at 66%. Infection rates among deer ticks were found to be 42% in Riverhead and 34% in Southold, according to the study.

Officials noted that the findings reflect a single location within each township and that ticks were collected in the spring, summer and fall to coincide with different stages of the arachnids’ development.

No ticks analyzed from the North Fork were found carrying the Powassan virus pathogen, but infected ticks were found in East Hampton, Islip, Huntington and Smithtown, according to the study, which can be viewed in its entirety on the Suffolk County Department of Health Services website.

Since 2009, 19 cases of Powassan virus have been reported in New York, though no human infections have been confirmed in Suffolk County.

One top priority of the Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital is to educate the public about prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

“Over the last four years, working with Entomology Lab Chief, Dr. Scott Campbell, and his staff, has served to enhance our educational mission by helping us to reach even more residents and visitors, furthering our core mission of public education, and the facilitation of access to the diagnosis and treatment of tick-borne diseases,” administrative director Karen Wulffraat said in a statement.

The center distributes education materials and hundreds of tick removal kits to residents each year.

Public awareness remains key, officials said.

“Education is of key importance when dealing with public health protection,” Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said in a statement. “We encourage doctors to be familiar with case definitions and to consider vector-borne diseases when diagnosing patients. We also ask our residents to be vigilant and take the necessary steps to avoid vector-borne diseases.”

The Tick Surveillance Study was recommended by the Suffolk County Tick and Vector-Borne Diseases Task Force in its report released in 2016.

The results show that tick-borne pathogen infection rates in Suffolk County are within the normal range set forth by New York State.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies New York State as a “high incidence state,” for Lyme Disease, meaning that there are an average of 10 confirmed cases per 100,000 people for at least three consecutive years.

To further raise awareness, Mr. Bellone announced a Tick Bite Prevention Education Campaign to help educate school-age children in summer camps and other outdoor programs about preventive measures they can take to reduce the risk of tick bites.

As part of the campaign, Suffolk County health department staff have been holding “Tick-Talk” presentations at local libraries and 500 tick awareness trail signs have been installed at parks countywide.

Last summer, health department staff conducted 30 public forums, reaching approximately 549 adults and 488 children.

Residents and visitors to Suffolk County who have questions about tick removal or tick-borne disease are encouraged to call the Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center Hotline at 631-726-TICK.

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