The number of new Lyme disease cases in the Finger Lakes has leveled off -- at least for now.
After shooting up more than 1,800% in the last decade, new cases have settled around a number that disease experts called a “new normal."
In 2008, 20 new cases of Lyme disease were documented in the Finger Lakes. In the most recent data, from 2018, 385 cases were reported. A spokesperson for the state health department said last year’s data is still provisional, but it’s not expected to change significantly when the numbers are finalized later this month.
Lyme disease used to be concentrated downstate, researchers said, but climate change is helping the ticks that carry it to expand their range northwestward.
Brian Backenson, the deputy director of communicable disease control at the state health department, said that expansion is leading to new research in New York, aimed at reducing the tick population.
“One of the areas of research that’s relatively hot right now is figuring out how to do areawide tick control,” Backenson said.
Most tick control currently is done at the level of individual homes. Unlike mosquitos, which can be reached with airborne insecticides, “ticks don’t fly,” Backenson said, “so you have to find a way to get your material way down into the vegetation. It takes a lot of pressure.”
Despite a widespread understanding that climate change is at least partially responsible for the spread of tick habitats, Backenson said more research is needed to figure out exactly how tightly the two are linked.
One of the people studying that issue is Emil Lesho, Rochester Regional Health’s hospital epidemiologist. The spread of Lyme disease is a sign of bigger problems to come, he said.
“Climate change contributes to a huge crisis in infectious disease, and that crisis is antibiotic resistance,” said Lesho.
When people get sick and are prescribed antibiotics, some bacteria develop a resistance to the medication, Lesho said.
That resistance makes it much harder to treat future illnesses. Lesho said climate change is expanding the range of many diseases, and it’s accelerating the development of antibiotic-resistant strains.
He said he expects Lyme disease to continue moving west, toward counties like Niagara and Orleans, where annual cases are still in the single digits.
Preventing Lyme disease infection is the first step to stopping its spread, Backenson said, explaining that the researchers in his lab practice what they preach: They wear long pants to keep ticks off their skin and light-colored clothes to make ticks easier to spot.
“I’ve collected probably hundreds of thousands of ticks in my career,” Backenson said. “No tick-borne diseases.”