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Tick-borne diseases are spreading in the Northeast. Here's what to know

RB Komar
Getty Images

Ticks and the diseases they carry are becoming more common and spreading to new regions of the country.

National Lyme disease rates have been steadily increasing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with parts of the Northeast experiencing the biggest increase in cases and overall infections.

But what do we really know about these parasitic arachnids? Rick Ostfeld, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, recently joined “The Colin McEnroe Show” to talk about ticks and his own unique immunity to them.

What’s causing the rise in ticks and tick-borne illness?

There are a number of factors contributing to the spread of ticks, climate change being one of them. “Climate change causes an increase in the length of the warm season,” Ostfeld said. “The longer [ticks] have in the season to look for a host, the better they do.”

As ticks spread to new geographic areas, they bring diseases with them. Rising cases of Lyme disease can mostly be attributed to geographic spread, Ostfeld said. In endemic areas, like most of Connecticut, Lyme cases tend to roughly stabilize.

What is a tick’s life like?

Relatively long, but pretty slow-paced.

“The black-legged tick generally lives for two years — very long longevity for such a tiny creature,” Ostfeld said. But during that relatively long life, they spend only a couple weeks feeding on a host.

Which begs the question, what do ticks do for the rest of their lives?

“Pretty much nothing,” Ostfeld said. “[Ticks stay] on the forest floor, under the leaf litter, or even in small pores in the surface of the soil, digesting a blood meal or being in a state of suspended animation.”

The idea that ticks can jump on you from above is a myth. “They’re no acrobats. They are wimpy as can be,” Ostfeld said. “They don’t jump, they don’t hop, they don’t fly, they don’t fall out of trees.”

That means if you’ve found a tick on your neck or ears, it most likely crawled on your ankle and up your body before finding the perfect spot to bite.

If you do find a tick, experts say, remove it quickly. In most cases, ticks must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If you remove a tick quickly (within 24 hours), you can greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease,” the agency says.

Ostfeld’s unique immunity to ticks

Ostfeld is well-known for his rare immunity to tick bites.

“I have developed an anti-tick immune response so that now when I get a tick bite, I kill the tick before it can feed for very long,” he said.

He hypothesizes that getting bitten by dozens of ticks in New York and Kenya helped lead to this immunity. “My immune system has been taught, by virtue of prior experience, to react very strongly to proteins — antigens — in the saliva of these ticks,” Ostfield said.

After going public with his immunity, Ostfeld said he received emails from other people around the world who think they have the same immunity, although the condition has not been well-researched.

Listen to the full episode: “Why ticks are on the rise and how humans are fighting back”

Carolyn McCusker helps produce The Colin McEnroe Show. She loves making true radio stories and listening to fake ones. In the past, she’s worked for NPR and WNYC, and she’s glad to be back at CT Public after interning in 2019.