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Our ‘Tick-ing Time Bomb’ Requires Hard Work, Creativity

By Anne W. Semmes

It was the recent National Public Radio news story on “forest bathing” that tapped into my summer anxiety. The Japanese have come up with a take-a-walk-in-a-forest therapy to reduce stress. Apparently, trees exude compounds known as phytoncides that reduce concentrations of stress hormones in men and women. But forests around here have ticks!

Last week I was in Ithaca, N.Y., visiting my daughter, who lives on the edge of a forest. My granddaughter fortunately raises chickens and chickens fortunately consume ticks, so I felt safe to wander about. But I declined my daughter’s invitation to sit with her in a blind to photograph birds, which is her passion, for fear of ticks (and mosquitos). Call this my summer anxiety.

And then my daughter shared an article published online last week that has raised my anxiety to a new level: “Connecticut: A Ticking Time Bomb.” It emanates from weather.com/us-climate-change/Connecticut, and addresses “What we can we learn from the state that was ground zero for Lyme disease.”

So, following on are my takeaways from the article.

First off, reforestation has occurred throughout New England, and with it the rapid growth of white tailed deer. But it’s the climate change that’s largely bringing us more ticks. Connecticut and adjacent states in New England are warming more rapidly than any other part of the U.S. except Alaska. This February was the warmest on record, driving people to the beach! Add to that a mild winter, earlier seasonal tick activity, and expanded tick habitat range.

We are approaching that perfect storm.

“We’ve been inundated with ticks coming into our tick-testing facilities. The likes of which we’ve never really experienced in the past,” reports Theodore Andreadis, the director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. And, there’s the increased acorn harvest he cites driving the increase of white-footed mice. It is those mice—and chipmunks—that not only host the ticks but pass on to them the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

That bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, only came to light in the mid-60’s. The story goes it was that Murray family with four kids that lived in a wooded area of Lyme who were all plagued with aching joints and unexplained fatigue that got the scientists going. But it turns out Lyme disease is traceable to a 5,300-year-old “ice mummy!”

I have friends with children seriously affected by Lyme Disease. I have seen what it can do. I am surprised at the forbearance friends and family who have had the disease and shaken it off quickly with antibiotics. The symptoms are reported in this article: “It creeps up on you gradually until one day you wake up and say: ‘Oh my God, I feel like crap,’ and you don’t want to get out of bed.” Another victim shares, “I had night sweats, trouble sleeping, digestive issues, heart palpitations…”

An educator from Bridgeport whose family has been affected by the disease, vows to continue to enjoy the outdoors in her home state. “The woods are the best part of living here,” she states. But she adds, “If you live in Connecticut, you need to be prepared. Be aware, take the precautions.”

So, what are those precautions? Andreadis warns, “Assume you’re going to pick one [a tick] up… when you get back home, take a shower, take a close look at your body. They get between your knees.” He warns also of that new and potent tick-carried Powassan virus that surfaced last year in Connecticut that can be transmitted within 15 minutes of its feeding on you.

The town of Greenwich’s Health Department website has a four-page news release listing steps to take to prevent Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases, with “Personal Protection Measures” and “Pet Protection Measures. Under “Landscape Management,” there is “Remove leaf litter, brush, and tall weeds from around the home and at the lawn’s edge.”

But there is no recommendation for homeowners to adopt organic fungal spraying against ticks that a friend in backcountry regularly uses. “It’s not poisonous to birds and bees,” she says, and she sees fewer ticks. She alerted me to the sprayer’s site, greensprays.com.

A call to Bruce Spaman, who heads the town’s Parks and Trees Division, found no anti-tick spraying being done in our parks at present. Spaman mentioned having surveyed backcountry Parkway School’s grounds for tick levels but not finding “sufficient populations.” It’s the Babcock Preserve with the high tick levels, says Spaman with its high moisture levels and tick-favored Japanese barberry.  Efforts are underway, he notes, to control the growth of that barberry.

But help may be on the way for an effective anti-tick spray, thanks to the efforts of Greenwich hedge funder Steven Cohen and his wife, Alexandra! Their foundation has contributed, as of 2016, $5 million of the $8.8-million budget of The Tick Project, a fungal spraying of 24 Lyme disease-plagued neighborhoods in Dutchess County over the next five years. Working with the project, partnered in part with the CDC and the New York State Department of Health, is Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Up till now, Ostfeld reports in The New York Times, “spraying individual lawns has not proved effective in fighting Lyme Disease.” The hope is this widespread spraying will “significantly” reduce cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

The fungal spray is made from a strain of the fungus—Metarhizium anisopliae—found in forest soils in eastern North America and proven to effectively kill ticks. According to The Tick Project website: www.tickproject.org/the-study, this strain, or as it’s called, Met52, has been developed as a commercial product that can be sprayed on vegetation where it kills ticks looking for hosts on which to feed.” (Note that the EPA has found MET 52 “practically non-toxic to mammals; including infants and children.”)

Another part of the study is that households in the sprayed neighborhoods are being provided with bait boxes to attract those disease carrying mice and chipmunks. An insecticide in the box kills the ticks on the mice and chipmunks.

So, it’s good to know in this “Ticking Time Bomb” time, that we have some resident entrepreneurs like the Cohens watching our back. In the meantime, bring on the chickens!



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