Opinion

The Other Disease caused by Ecological Degradation and Climate Change

My grandson with Lyme Disease Photo: Carolyn Schweiger

 

By: Larry J. Schweiger

 

While the number of deaths in the United States from COVID-19 has reached more than110,000, the origin of the virus has been the focus of political conspiracy theories. We now know that this novel virus started with Chinese wildlife consumption. The virus probably came from a bat. Research scientists confirmed that COVID-19 has similarities to known coronaviruses found in wildlife. The researchers have ruled out the political conspiracy theory that COVID was created in a Wuhan lab funded by the Obama administration. In an over-populated China, wildlife habitats are disappearing, and humans are eating all forms of unclean wildlife for protein. 

 

In an interview with Fox News on Feb. 16, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., first suggested that the coronavirus came from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak emerged. Others went further by raising the possibility that the virus was a leaked bio-weapon.” All of this has been a deliberate deflection to take the attention off of Trump’s failures. Sadly, it’s still true that a lie seems to travel further and faster than any scientific fact. Human populations are stressing nature and creating opportunities for more novel viruses to cross over. When human populations exceed the limits of the natural world, more novel viruses are inevitable.

 

There is another ecological disease that has spread across Pennsylvania. It has not received the needed attention in the face of the required media attention to COVID and Black Lives Matter. This week, I developed a high fever, chills, night sweats, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, so my family doctor suggested that I get tested for the COVID-19 virus. I was tested for COVID-19 and found to be negative. At the hospital, we discovered a tick bite on the back of my thigh. It was not the typical bullseye shaped rash but a quarter-sized red welt. It was a tick bite, none-the-less, and I missed it. I have been so focused on social distancing that I failed to check my body for ticks when outdoors. As a lifelong wildlife professional, I of all people should know better. 

 

Unlike mosquitoes that produce an anticoagulant protein that triggers itching from a quick immune response, ticks do not use anticoagulants so they can escape notice. We know when we are bitten by a mosquito, not so with black-legged (deer ticks) and other silent biters. “Thirty percent or more of people with Lyme disease don’t remember having the rash. Even fewer people remember a tick attachment. Estimates range from 20 to 50 percent. The ticks in the nymph stage are the size of poppy seeds, and their bites are easy to miss.”

 

I am now taking an antibiotic that targets these Spirochete bacteria. Lyme is one of several nasty corkscrew-shaped bacteria. Many spirochetes are dangerous pathogens causing diseases such as syphilis, yaws, relapsing fever, and Lyme disease. Unchecked, Lyme can be a nasty disease.

 

My grandson developed Lyme a few years ago while playing in the woods and was not detected for some time. When I was a boy, playing in the same nearby woods, we never had to worry about ticks because they were not there. With a rapidly warming world facing a climate crisis, deer ticks and other disease-carrying ticks and mosquitos can now overwinter are encroaching on more new places than ever before. Thanks to climate change, our average minimum winter temperatures have gone above about 19° F. Colder temperatures keep deer ticks from establishing stable populations. It turns out that freezing deep cold weather is the best insecticide against ticks and other problematic insects. We are losing our hard winters.

 

How do we stay safe while outdoors? Emily Tipping, writing for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s CONSERVE when Lyme first arrived in Western Pennsylvania, offered these precautions to reduce the risk of tick bites:

 

  • “Either avoid areas in the spring and summer that are likely to be infested (ticks prefer open to semi-open habitats with low-lying vegetation); or wear long pants, long sleeves and a hat, and tuck your pant legs into your socks or boots, or tape pant legs to your socks.
  • Wear light-colored clothing so the minute deer ticks can be easily seen and removed.
  • Apply an insect repellent containing DEET (n,n-diethyl-m-toluamide) to clothes and exposed skin, following Environmental Protection Agency safety guidelines.
  • Walk in the center of hiking trails to avoid bumping into the overhanging brush. Ticks hang from the edges of vegetation and latch onto warm-blooded bodies walking by. 
  • If you’ve been out in an area that may be infested with deer ticks, check for and remove any attached ticks immediately.” 

 

How is Lyme disease diagnosed? According to Medline Plus, in making a diagnosis, “your health care provider will consider:

 

  • Your symptoms
  • How likely it is that you were exposed to infected black-legged (deer) ticks
  • The possibility that other illnesses may cause similar symptoms
  • Results of any lab tests

 

It takes between 24 and 48 hours for an infected tick to transmit the Lyme disease once it has started to bite. Lyme disease tests check for antibodies made by the body in slow response to infection. These antibodies can take several weeks to develop. If you are tested too soon, it may not show that you have Lyme disease, even if you have it. You may need to have another confirmation test later.

 

As an informed society understanding the development and spread of Lyme disease is important to understand how the climate crisis, ecological collapse, and resource mismanagement have fueled the spread of new disease and will spread other emerging diseases. “Lyme disease was first identified in rural Connecticut in 1975. Physicians suspected a virus was behind the outbreak, but—without knowing its true agent—attempts at further understanding the pathogenesis and possible treatments of Lyme disease were unsuccessful. In 1981, IRP researcher William Burgdorfer, Ph.D., at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Rocky Mountain Laboratories discovered spirochetes” as the cause of Lyme. 

White-footed mice and whitetail deer have been primary spreaders of the infected ticks from Lyme, Connecticut. They are spreading the Lyme since infected black-leg ticks are now able to overwinter in the northeast. Deer are macro spreaders of the contaminated ticks. Twenty years ago, Lyme was only a problem in eastern Pennsylvania. Since then, the deer have spread the ticks and virus statewide. Tick populations have exploded in populated areas where deer hunting was not practical and where local governments have not found the will to more aggressively manage deer numbers. Pennsylvania is now in the epicenter of Lyme. High deer densities have been encouraged by the Pennsylvania Game Commission for far too many decades. Increasingly we are witnessing lower hunter participation as the aging hunting population declines.

 

The climate crisis is affecting the spread of Lyme and other infectious diseases. CDC has warned that climate change may change the distribution of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases prevalent in America. Climate change could cause diseases like dengue fever, Lyme disease, or West Nile virus to re-emerge, or spread to areas previously unaffected. Also, changes in climate can help introduce and spread new diseases, such as Chikungunya fever. Besides, climate change directly affects the number of waterborne cases through effects on water temperature and precipitation frequency and intensity. CDC’s work on the spread of diseases from the climate crisis has been thwarted since 2016 when Trump came to power. 

 

We must demand the unleashing of the CDC to study these emerging threats. From my experience, we should be more vigilant in inspecting each other for ticks while we socially distance. This is the new reality.

 

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