Tick Explosion or Uptick

A female black-legged tick carries Lyme disease and is present in all of the counties along Lake Michigan.

TRAVERSE CITY — Two northern Michigan counties are reporting a “significant increase” in cases of Lyme disease compared to previous years, roughly halfway through tick season.

A dozen total cases of the tick-borne disease (six each in Benzie and Leelanau counties) have been reported since June 1, 2020, according to a Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department press statement.

As a comparison, 16 total cases were reported in the counties in the last 5 years combined.

Christina Ryan-Stoltz of Frankfort was diagnosed with Lyme disease on July 15, 2020. She suspects she got it sitting outside in her hammock chair.

Over the two weeks leading up to her diagnosis, she had a fever, joint and muscle pain, lesions, and a large red bump behind her knee.

“I spent a long time thinking it was a spider bite,” she said. “Probably way too long.”

Still, she was diagnosed in what’s considered the early stages of the disease, when it can be most successfully treated with antibiotics.

“So now I’m on a 21-day treatment,” said Ryan-Stoltz. “I still have significant pain in my knuckles and my hip and one knee.”

Most people improve after such treatments, but 10 to 20 percent of patients with Lyme disease have been shown to develop what’s known as post-Lyme syndrome — lingering symptoms that can include pain, fatigue, and disruptions to sleep and cognitive function.

“My doctor said you may have weird stuff in the future as you age, so just know that it could be related to Lyme,” said Ryan-Stoltz.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted to humans by the bite of the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis).

It causes fever, aches, fatigue, a characteristic rash, and, if left untreated, can spread to the heart and nervous system. Sometimes, it causes long-term debilitating illness.

“We want the public to be aware and take precautions,” said Xavier Gagné, environmental sanitarian for BLDHD.

The reason for this year’s high case count is uncertain, said Gagné, but he pointed out that people may be more likely to be spending time outdoors because of the coronavirus pandemic, and therefore running into ticks more frequently.

“We can postulate maybe that’s what’s going on, but we won’t really know until a couple of years down the road if that’s a factor,” he said.

There are other trends to consider, said Gagné, including the expanding range of the black-legged tick in Michigan.

Black-legged ticks and Lyme disease have been moving up Michigan’s western coast and slowly inland for decades.

“It’s been a pretty dramatic invasion since the 80s,” said Kimberly Signs, an epidemiologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The black-legged tick’s spread and an increasing number of Lyme disease cases in Michigan mirror a national trend. There are a number of factors contributing to the ticks’ spread, including human-caused climate change, said Aaron Ferguson of MDHHS.

“[It] isn’t necessarily the primary driver of that expansion, but as temperatures increase, that allows for more spread of ticks and other infectious diseases,” said Ferguson. “It’s not getting cold enough here to kill off the ticks in the winter.”

The pests.org 2020 tick forecast called for increased tick populations and activity in the Midwest.

According to Gagné, BLDHD just started monitoring tick populations last year, so it’s hard to pinpoint an increase in Benzie and Leelanau counties specifically.

Statewide information on 2020 tick season is not yet complete, partly because the season’s not over and partly because health departments are overwhelmed with COVID-19, said Signs.

“I don’t think we’ll be comfortable saying a lot about what’s going on statewide this year until we’ve had time to look at the data,” said Signs.

But, she agrees it’s possible the coronavirus pandemic has driven people outside, causing more human-tick interactions.

“We may have just a lot of people out recreating who may or may not be aware of the fact that Lyme disease is a risk in their area,” said Signs.

Signs encourages people to protect their families and their pets by doing things like wearing insect repellent and doing tick checks as soon as possible after time outdoors.

“The ticks are out there,” she said.

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