By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor
NORTH KINGSTOWN — Remember rolling around in the yard or running through the woods without the fear of a tick bite causing flu-like symptoms and aching joints?
Lyme disease changed all of that in 1975. It now is one of the fastest growing infectious diseases in the country, with nearly 400,000 new cases a year, according to Dr. Maria Diuk-Wasser from the Yale School of Public Health.
Diuk-Wasser spoke March 29 during a Rhode Island Historical Survey conference entitled “Trends in Human-Wildlife Interaction.”
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria transmitted through a tick bite, and is usually accompanied by a rash, fever, headache, fatigue, stiff joints and, if left untreated, can cause serious long-term health issues such as arthritis and heart rhythm irregularity. As we enter prime tick season in late May to early June, what is our actual risk of infection and what are the best ways to protect ourselves?
“There are several determinants of risk that include the number of infected ticks, landscape proxy to forested areas and behaviors, such as tick checking,” said Diuk-Wasser, explaining how the environment and how we interact with it can either decrease or increase the risk of getting Lyme disease.
She presented her findings from a pilot project conducted on Block Island to see what the actual exposure is to Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases such as babesiosis, which can be fatal to those with a weak immune system.
“Many people get sick and don’t know it,” she said. “People don’t know what they have in their backyards.”
Block Island has few trees compared to the rest of the state, so the most common place there to find ticks is in and around shrubs. Risk of exposure is much greater at the shrub edge, however, because that’s where most human activity is, such as gardening or walking the dog.
Heavily fragmented forests due to construction or other land uses that isolate patches of forest were found to increase the risk of contracting Lyme disease, according to Michael McBride, associate veterinarian at Roger Williams Park Zoo.
“This was an unexpected finding,” he said. “I would’ve thought we would see reduced numbers from deer displacement.”
Deer are often thought to be the primary tick carriers, but researchers are finding that fragmented forests reduce larger animals and increase smaller animals such as field mice, which are major tick-carrying culprits.
The best method to protect yourself is to check for ticks if you’ve been outdoors or have pets that go outdoors. “Tick checking significantly reduces risk of exposure,” Diuk-Wasser said.
Additional ways to protect yourself, according to McBride, are to wash your hands after being outside and before eating; observe wildlife from afar; wear proper clothing such as hats and long-sleeved pants and tops; and wear insect repellent.