For most of us, a nice stroll in the woods is a leisurely activity for relaxing or light cardio. But for disease ecologist Richard Ostfeld, a walk in the New York woods led him to predict a significant outbreak of Lyme disease for 2017 and 2018!
What is Lyme disease? Is it serious? How did Ostfeld come to his prediction? And why is there no vaccine yet?
Let’s tackle these one by one, shall we?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection primarily transmitted by Ixodes ticks, also known as deer ticks and blacklegged ticks. These ticks are typically found in wooded and grassy areas.
Commonly reported symptoms are fever, headache, fatigue, and skin rashes.
If left untreated, infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system. The CDC estimates approximately 300,000 new Lyme disease cases in the US each year. In reality, that number is quite higher since many cases are either misdiagnosed or just not reported.
Most cases can be treated successfully within a few weeks of antibiotics. Preventing or reducing your chance of contracting this disease can be as simple as using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and exposing as little skin as possible when walking in tick habitats (i.e. woods). But one of the complicating factors of diagnosing Lyme disease is that a diagnosis usually occurs based on the symptoms you show (physical finding) – and often the symptoms are conflated with other illnesses or common ailments.
So, the severity of Lyme disease depends on how fast you can diagnose and treat it.
So how did Ostfeld come to his Lyme disease outbreak prediction? On his walk, he noticed an uncharacteristically high amount of acorns littered across the forest floor. He described it as “like walking on ball bearings.” These acorns would go on to swell the mouse population, which would go on to attract ticks. Mouse blood carries Lyme disease, causing bacteria which passes to a tick, which in turn then passes to the host a tick latches onto, i.e. a human.
“We predict the mice population based on the acorns and we predict infected nymph ticks with the mice numbers. Each step has a one year lag,” Ostfeld says.
And to make matters worse, the recent trend of warmer winters means more ticks that carry the disease have been found in areas where Lyme disease has never before been a issue – and where most people don’t know how to respond to it or know how to prevent it.
The ideal situation is to develop a vaccine, but at the time of this posting, no such vaccine exists.
There was brief progress in the 1990s with the drug Lymerix, but the anti-vaccine movement stymied any real progress when lawsuits popped up claiming Lymerix caused chronic arthritis. Read more about the efforts for a Lyme disease vaccine here.
For now, the best bet is prevention.
LymeDisease.org has developed a Lyme disease symptom checklist to help you document your exposure to Lyme disease and common symptoms.
And for laughs, watch Larry David help you with prevention here!