Lyme Disease on My Mind

Blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) engorged with a meal of blood.
Credit: CDC/ Dr. Gary Alpert, Urban Pests, Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

In early 2012, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease after months of mysterious and painful symptoms. My doctor suggested I stay quiet about the diagnosis to avoid well-intentioned but misinformed advice.

I did not stay quiet, and did indeed get unsolicited and sometimes awkward treatment suggestions.

But I consider my Lyme story a public service announcement—especially since I was reinfected less than two years later. I live in Virginia, where Lyme disease cases are on the rise. Lyme disease is also one of the diseases expected to sicken more Americans as the climate changes.

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness spread by ticks. Symptoms often crop up in June, July, or August—when people spend more time playing outdoors—but the start of “Lyme season” depends heavily on the weather. Weather and climate also appear to restrict where Lyme-carrying ticks are found in the United States, and in fact, 96 percent of confirmed cases in 2014 were in just 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Click here for detailed maps of reported cases in the United States.

According to the authoritative Climate Health Assessment released a few weeks ago by 13 federal departments and agencies, climate change will likely allow ticks with the potential to carry the Lyme disease bacterium to march northward and to higher elevations. Climate change also will likely lead to higher tick survival during the winter and an earlier start to Lyme season. At least one disease expert thinks the shift in timing is already underway, and as a result says National Lyme Disease Awareness Month should be moved from May to April.

The connection between climate change and Lyme disease is unfortunately not as clear cut as with illnesses and deaths associated with extreme heat or dirty air. Like any disease spread by vectors like ticks, mosquitos, or fleas, it is hard to disentangle climate change’s effects on Lyme disease from changes in habitat (like the spread of suburbia) and changes in wildlife (like deer and mice) that host blood-sucking pests. More research is needed to estimate how many more people will fall ill from vector-borne diseases as the world warms and rainfall and humidity patterns change. This is particularly true for emerging diseases like the Zika virus.

There are a couple of ways to protect yourself and your family in the meantime. As we head into this year’s tick season, take some time to familiarize yourself with ways to prevent bites. And to minimize future harm, keep an eye on our "Get Involved" page for ways to lend your voice to the fight against climate change.

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