Ticks should be removed carefully after a bite to avoid leaving the head embedded under the skin. Credit: Fairfax County, V.A. / Creative Commons

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Cases of tick-borne illness in Tompkins County have almost doubled since last year.

The reported cases of Lyme disease jumped from 265 in 2022 to 535 in 2023 as of the end of August, according to data from the New York State Department of Health. 

The sharp increase in local cases of tick-borne illnesses comes against the backdrop of a national trend: annual cases of tick borne illnesses have roughly doubled over the last two decades.

Cases of other tick-borne illnesses are on the rise too: babesiosis cases nearly tripled and anaplasmosis cases increased by a third.

People infected with babesiosis may not even know it, according to Mayo Clinic. Symptoms can include from fever, chills, sweats, and fatigue. Anaplasmosis shares many of the same symptoms.

Cornell University entomologist Emily Mader said the cause behind the growing frequency of tick-borne illnesses can’t be pinned down to just one factor. 

Mader, a program manager at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, which tracks tick borne illnesses, said obtaining a definitive explanation will likely take researchers “a couple years,” but that milder winters are a “huge part” of what’s driving the increase.

Milder winters, likely linked to climate change, can be a boon to the survival rate of blacklegged, or deer ticks, the main vector for tick-borne illnesses in the northeast. 

But Mader said it is not only the survival of ticks themselves that contributes to the spread of disease, but also the host animals ticks feed on.

“It’s not just the ticks that are part of this equation,” Mader said. “It’s an entire ecosystem that supports the growth of these pathogens.”

Milder winters can improve the chances of survival for white-footed mice, which Mader called “public enemy number one” when it comes to tick hosts. While cute, the white-footed mouse is a common carrier for the pathogens that cause Lyme disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis in humans.

Dr. Bill Klepack, the Medical Director for Tompkins County Whole Health, recommended people check themselves for ticks after spending time outdoors, and follow up with a shower. 

Ticks, in their nymph stage, are as small as a poppy seed. Often, people are not aware they’ve been bitten by a tick when they begin to experience disease symptoms.

Klepack said it’s difficult to compare this year’s Lyme disease numbers beyond 2022 because New York State changed the way it counts positive cases in 2021.

The increasing prevalence of tick-borne illnesses locally “highlights the need for people to be aware of prevention methods to try and limit their exposure to ticks,” Klepack said. 

Nonetheless, Klepack said, ticks shouldn’t stop people from enjoying outdoor activities this fall.

“Being outdoors is healthy. It’s good for your mental health. It’s good for your body,” Klepack said.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.org Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn