Lyme disease: Is climate change spreading this disease?

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Lyme disease: Is climate change spreading this disease?

Lyme disease: Is climate change spreading this disease?

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How the increased spread of ticks may lead to a higher incidence of Lyme disease in the future.
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      Quantumrun Foresight
    • February 27, 2022

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    While the geographic range of ticks continues to expand, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the incidence of tick-borne diseases is increasing at an unprecedented rate.

    Lyme disease context 

    Lyme disease, caused by borrelia burgdorferi and occasionally borrelia mayonii, is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. The illness is transmitted via the bite of infected black-legged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, and a distinctive skin rash known as erythema migrans. An untreated infection can spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system. A Lyme disease diagnosis is based on the probability of tick exposure as well as the presentation of physical symptoms. 

    Ticks are typically associated with the New England woodlands and other forested areas in the US; however, new research indicates that ticks carrying Lyme disease have been discovered near beaches in Northern California for the first time. Human settlement expansion into wildland areas, including forests in the eastern United States, has resulted in fragmented forest habitat that has been linked to an increased entomological risk for Lyme disease. New housing developments, for example, bring people into contact with tick populations that previously lived in wooded or undeveloped areas. 

    Urbanization may have also caused a rise in the number of mice and deer, which ticks need for blood meals, thereby increasing the tick population. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, temperature and humidity have a significant impact on the prevalence and life cycle of deer ticks. For example, deer ticks flourish in locations with at least 85 percent humidity and are most active when the temperature rises over 45 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, rising temperatures linked with climate change are anticipated to expand the area of suitable tick habitat and are one of several factors driving the observed spread of Lyme disease.

    Disruptive impact

    Although it is unknown how many Americans get infected with Lyme disease, the latest evidence published by the CDC indicates that up to 476,000 Americans are identified and treated for the disease each year. There have been reports of cases in all 50 states. A major clinical need includes the necessity for better diagnostics; this includes the capacity to identify early Lyme disease before antibody testing can reliably detect it as well as the development of Lyme disease vaccines. 

    Assuming a two-degree Celsius increase in yearly average temperature—per mid-century estimates from the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA4)—the number of Lyme Disease cases in the United States is predicted to rise by more than 20 percent in the coming decades. These findings may help public health experts, clinicians, and policymakers in strengthening preparedness and response, as well as boosting public awareness of the necessity of exercising caution when participating in outdoor activities. Understanding how present and future land-use changes are likely to influence human disease risk has become a priority for disease ecologists, epidemiologists, and public health practitioners.

    Despite substantial federal government investments, the rapid rise of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses has emerged. According to the CDC, personal protection is the best barrier against Lyme disease along with landscape changes and acaricide treatments to individual homes. However, there is limited evidence that any of these measures work. Backyard pesticide usage reduces tick numbers but does not directly influence human illness or tick-human interaction.

    Questions to comment on

    • Do you know of anyone who has contracted Lyme disease? What has their experience been like managing this disease?
    • What precautions do you take to keep ticks at bay when you are outdoors?

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    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight:

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Lyme Disease
    The Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology “Ticking Bomb”: The Impact of Climate Change on the Incidence of Lyme Disease