Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center
Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center

As ticks become a more and more commonplace part of our landscape and the diseases they carry seem to multiply, the science surrounding tick-borne diseases keeps changing.

With that in mind, the East Marion Community Association held its third annual forum on “Treacherous Ticks, Deer and Disease” on Nov. 18.

Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center gave an overview of the latest science, including details on a new Lyme Disease vaccine that is ready for clinical trials, the strange downtick in the number of infected people who have the classic bulls-eye rash associated with Lyme, and new tick-borne diseases including Alpha Gal syndrome.

Southold Town Environmental Analyst Craig Jones discussed the town’s plans for controlling the deer herd, including a population analysis planned for next year in conjunction with Stony Brook University.

Hazel Kahan of the North Fork Deer Alliance gave an overview of the Alliance’s new petition to ask elected leaders to allow financial incentives for recreational hunters and to contract with professional hunters to help reduce the size of the herd.

“Where we are today is really a man-made situation,” said Dr. Wellins. “We’ve been disrupting the forest, the landscape and habitats. We have created the situation. I’s very complex and it’s going to take a multitude of approaches to really get a handle on the problem.”

Dr. Wellins gave an overview of the two-year life cycle of a tick, which only needs three blood meals in its life. The ticks usually get their first blood meal, while still a nymph, from mice, which carry Lyme Disease and infect the ticks. Dr. Wellins said 40 to 60 percent of adult deer ticks carry Lyme Disease, while only 20 percent of nymphs carry the disease. She added that people are at the greatest danger of contracting Lyme Disease if a tick has been feeding on them for more than 24 yours.

At adult life stages, the ticks feed on deer, which aren’t susceptible to Lyme Disease but which provide enough large body mass to be hosts for massive numbers of ticks. Ticks also mate on the deer, and lay thousands of eggs on them.

Dr. Wellins suggested that protecting fox populations could help control the number of mice that act as vectors for the disease.

She also discussed the dangers of not taking a full course of antibiotics, especially for people who go on antibiotics before they begin to feel bad, and then don’t finish the prescribed six-week course.

“I personally believe that because people are not finishing courses of antibiotics, it’s putting them at higher risk of chronic Lyme Disease,” she said. She added that many people who have newly contracted Lyme no longer get the classic bulls-eye rash, most likely because they’ve had Lyme Disease before.

Dr. Wellins said she believes many behavior health issues in children could also be due to Lyme Disease.

“Children are more at risk for chronic Lyme, because it’s missed,” she said, adding that Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder symptoms are often similar to Lyme symptoms in children.

Alpha Gal, the disease that causes the meat allergy, is carried by the Lone Star tick, said Dr. Wellins, and it can often come on quite quickly. Doctors sometimes call this disease “midnight anaphylaxis” because people go to bed after eating a cheeseburger and wake up with their throat beginning to swell shut.

She said meat with higher fat content seems to cause the worst symptoms, but the allergy is only to meat from hoofed animals, not fish or chicken. It could also appear when people consume gelatin, which is in a lot of food products. But there is some good news.

“It will wane over time if you’re not exposed to bites,” she said.

Dr. Wellins said Stony Brook University will be conducting the first trial of a human Lyme Disease vaccine, which researchers are hoping will provide antibodies that block the saliva in ticks, making them back out instead of having a blood meal on vaccinated humans.

Mr. Jones, the Environmental Analyst and Wildlife Specialist for Southold Town, said the town’s hunting program has grown since it was established in 2008, when only seven deer were killed by 50 hunters who registered in the program.

At the height of the program, he said, hunters took 288 deer in 2014, but in 2016 they took just 222 deer.

“Deer are being pushed into areas where we can’t hunt them,” he said. “They will learn over time where they need to be to be safe.”

Mr. Jones said getting rid of all the deer in Southold is “not feasible and not something we’re looking to do,” but that the town’s management goal is to reduce the herd to eight deer per acre.

The problem is, they don’t know how many deer are here now.

“In 2018, we’ll be doing actual counts, so we know where we need to focus our hunting efforts,” he said.

Mr. Jones said that neighbors can band together to agree to allow hunters onto their land, as is currently happening on Nassau Point, and can call the town’s Public Works Department at 631.765.1283 to be put in touch with hunters who are now partnering with the town.

Hunters on Long Island are not allowed to use rifles, and even the shotgun season here is quite short — for just the month of January. While bowhunting is permitted October through January, crossbows aren’t permitted here either. And recreational hunters are not allowed to bait deer.

Those limiting factors have led the North Fork Deer Alliance to advocate for the use of professional sharpshooters, as were used in a USDA program by Southold and the Long Island Farm Bureau in the winter of 2014. Hunters in that program are allowed to use rifles and bait deer.

Ms. Kahan, of the Deer Alliance, said the group is also advocating to allow recreational hunters a financial incentive to keep them hunting.

The Deer Alliance’s petition, online at www.northforkdeer.org/petition.html, asks 11 elected leaders, including North Fork Town Supervisors, County Legislators and State Assembly and Senate members to “listen to the affected resident majority seeking meaningful solutions rather than to small special interest groups.”

“We have to change the law to incentivize hunters,” said Ms. Kahan. “Go online to our website and it will take you to these 11 elected officials. We urge you to please do that.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

4 thoughts on “The Changing Faces of Tick-Borne Diseases

  1. Dr. Wellins spoke to my class of pediatric nurse practitioner students at Stony Brook School of Nursing and she has a terrific presentation. It is so important that medical professionals on Long Island learn how to treat tick borne illnesses. Dr. Wellins is a wealth of information.

  2. Blaming this problem on the deer is ridiculous. Mice are a fraction of many vectors for ticks. It sounds great, just thin the deer herd. There is no proof of anything in this article and its so far from science to be embarrassing. Political interests at hand. Vaccine makers ready to make another killing. Whats behind it…? Not science. The deer were here before we were.
    Oh yea, don’t forget we have to kill all the swans too. Cultural ignorance.

  3. Does anybody know the number of cases recorded here on east north fork before and after the sharpshooter event (3 years). That might be something you would want to look at before committing resources to this idea, and singling out the deer again. And sharpshooting is such a crude method when there are other more humane biologic solutions. The East Hampton Group for
    Wildlife has been working on other more scientific solutions.

  4. Beware of solutions to “complex” social problems that have overly simple solutions. Politicians love these things. All of a sudden we are going to fix everything “shoot the deer.” Bing, bam boom “all done.” Suggest more education about what to do if you get bitten and have the bullseye indicator. The ticks are still going to be around if you shoot the deer. This solution is not going to make anybody safer, as this article leads one to believe.

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