October 27, 2021

Testing finds ticks carrying disease on rise

Around 40% of all ticks tested in Cortland County have come back positive for harmful pathogens, especially Lyme disease, according to data compiled by Thangamani labs at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

Instead of travelling to survey tick populations, Dr. Saravanan Thangamani, the lead researcher at the tick collection program, requested the public submit ticks and the lab would test them for free, Thangamani said. The purpose of the research is to study the effects of climate change on the emergence of tick populations and tick-borne diseases.

“Upstate Medical University realized we are in a tick-borne disease high-risk area,” Thangamani said. “Actually, we’ve seen an increase in both ticks and the prevalence of pathogens.”

Between April 2019 and April 2021, 150 ticks were sent to the lab for testing and 58 of them, or 38.7%, tested positive for harmful pathogens, the data shows. Of those 58, almost all came back positive for Lyme disease.

From April 2019 to April 2020, the 75 ticks tested were deer ticks but between April 2020 to April 2021, the 73 ticks tested were made up of five different species, the data shows. But the percentage of ticks carrying harmful pathogens is average compared to surrounding counties.

“During COVID, people were asked to stay inside and they wanted to go to parks and for walks and spend more time gardening,” Thangamani said. “We saw an increase of ticks coming during the COVID season and 50% of the people who submitted ticks in 2020 said they increased their outdoor activity during COVID.”

Data collected through the program is published on the lab’s website and identifies hot spots and the emergence of ticks throughout the state that can be used by the public and county health departments, Thangamani said. Cortland County does not have any hot spots.

The program, labeled a citizen science project, will provide the public and county health departments with information regarding tick-borne pathogens across the state and illustrate how widespread the ticks are, said Joellen Lampman, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s integrated pest management support specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca.

“The warmer the weather, the more ticks we see,” Thangamani said. “The combination of human behavior and ecological factors including climate change contributes to the expansion of ticks in the upstate region.”

If pathogens are found through testing, individuals can approach their health care provider for treatment but the presence of tick-borne diseases does not indicate the presence of the disease in individuals, Lampman said.

“If the tick comes back carrying no pathogens, it might take the thought of a tick-borne disease off the table,” Lampman said. “It if comes back showing that it carries pathogens, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was on you long enough to pass along those pathogens.”

The Cortland County Health Department does not have specific initiatives to use the acquired data within the community, said Eric Muvihill, the clerk of the Cortland County Legislature.