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Climate change ticks me off: Lyme disease, and why small impacts require urgent action

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Since before I was born, my family has been visiting my grandmother’s land in Vermont. For me, it is a splash of forest and field, a spot of magic far from anything you might call “population density” but close, as John Prine sang, to where paradise lay. It’s where I learned about gardening and black flies, catching turtles and being caught by leeches, sweet corn, tart rhubarb, near-summer snow storms and the beauty of hummingbirds. I learned how to drive a car, run a tractor and split wood there, and I love it fiercely.

But in the last few years, it has become harder and harder to love it in the same ways. Ticks, once so unknown that I might wander barefoot in tall grass or walk through the woods in shorts and never even think about checking myself for them, have moved in. With them have come disease and fear. Now, I walk on the roads, tuck my pants into my socks, and carefully scan every inch of myself afterward. And still, last summer I found myself knocked down by Lyme disease, grateful for the classic bullseye rash on my leg because it meant I had caught it before it had become late-stage.

This is a change that is not unique to Vermont. Many species of ticks are geographically constrained in the U.S. by factors such as plant cover, temperature variation and the abundance of the species they parasitize. But with global warming has come milder and milder winters, allowing more ticks to survive in more places. The ranges of tick species have expanded and more people are reporting tick bites and tick-borne diseases each year. 

It’s not just climate change that has brought ticks to our doors. Clearing forests and building homes right at the edges of what remains gives ticks more opportunity to latch onto us as we walk by. Developing once-natural spaces can also destroy habitat for species that eat ticks and species that don’t carry tick-borne diseases, increasing the likelihood of both encountering ticks and getting sick from them. 

It’s a problem that even the U.S. military is worried about.

But ticks would be more of a nuisance than a threat – somewhat like the dry-land equivalent of leeches – if it weren’t for the diseases they carry. Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), carried primarily by American dog ticks, can be fatal if untreated. Alpha-gal syndrome, a newly-identified allergy to many meat proteins which can induce anaphylaxis, is caused by a reaction to a sugar molecule transmitted by the bite of a Lone Star tick. And then there is the black-legged (deer) tick, which carries more disease-causing agents than any other tick in North America and, in addition to a host of diseases with nasty Latin-sounding names, is mainly responsible for Lyme disease.

As the geographic ranges of these ticks grow with climate change and our destruction of natural spaces, these diseases are going to become even more common and a bigger threat to public health. Fortunately, though there is no vaccine for RMSF, it is treatable. Alpha-gal syndrome, though untreatable, sometimes goes away over time. And there is on-going research into Lyme disease prevention, including for a vaccine made by Pfizer and a seasonal, prophylactic monoclonal antibody treatment, as well as separate vaccine research funded by the Department of Defense.

This research is still in its early stages however, and won’t produce anything useful for the public for a long time (think five years for the current studies to wrap up). In the meantime, all we can do is wear bug spray, tuck our shirts into our pants and our pants into our socks, and breed opossums

Only partly kidding.

Tick bites are not the first thing most Americans are likely to think of when they hear the words “climate change.” We tend to think of wildfires in the West, devastating hurricanes in Florida or the Gulf, and melting glaciers and sea ice at the poles: big, destructive, apocalyptic stuff.

But climate change is also affecting us today – and will change our lives in the future – in a million little ways that can be hard to notice. Maybe it’s the appearance of a new insect in your favorite park, a change in the flowers and trees that will grow in your neighborhood, or feeling a bit more worried when you or your family are playing in a field or a forest. These smaller threats and impacts – like their more catastrophic siblings – are sure to keep growing, to keep upending our ways of life, if we don’t change how we live and consume.

Our relationships with the natural spaces and the creatures around us are changing, and we have to understand and treasure those relationships if we want to be able to get a handle on the larger problems we face. We’re only now starting to learn about and catalog the myriad ways we are connected to the world, and how global warming and our destructive behaviors are disrupting those connections. But by doing so – by acknowledging that the cars we drive and the homes we build on the forests’ edges and the cryptocurrencies we mine are bringing fire and flood and insects to our doors – we open the door to the possibility of doing better. And we make it a bit more likely that the places we treasure – the places that make us who we are – will still be around for future generations to love them like we do. Without fear.

 

Photo: A deer tick. Credit: Erik Karits via Unsplash