By Tessa Raebeck
With widespread incidents of tick-borne diseases reported each year, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk has introduced a resolution calling on the county’s vector control division to create a plan of concrete steps to address what he calls an “epidemic plaguing Suffolk County.”
Vector Control was created by the county to prevent both mosquito and tick-borne illnesses, but has to date focused primarily on mosquitos. The division, which operates under the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, has an annual budget of $2.5 million that Schneiderman and others believe would be better spent elsewhere.
On Tuesday, the county legislature voted to pass the resolution by a wide margin, with 16 legislators voting yes and one legislator, minority leader John M. Kennedy, abstaining.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease, the country’s most widespread vector-borne disease, each year. According to the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Suffolk County Legislators Al Krupski and Tom Cilmi, an individual is 300 times more likely to contract Lyme than the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus.
“Lyme disease in my mind has reached epidemic proportions out here in the East End of Suffolk County,” said Schneiderman Monday. “If untreated, it can be a very serious illness. I think everybody knows that. The towns have been trying to grapple with it…what in essence is a public health problem.”
“Most of us have been impacted in some way by tick-borne disease. Suffolk County needs to play an active role to control this growing health program,” Krupski said in a statement.
The bill requires the county to develop a plan every year that details the steps being taken to reduce the incidence of tick borne illnesses and to monitor the progress of that plan. Vector Control currently presents a plan each year for combatting West Nile and mosquitos. Under the resolution, the division will now be required to include a detailed section on the steps being taken to reduce the incidence of tick borne diseases in next year’s plan, due October 2014. The bill mandates that the county monitors the progress of the plan, but does not dictate any specific components of what it should include.
The division of Vector Control has been criticized in the past for its widespread spraying of pesticides in its efforts to control the mosquito population.
“That is not my intention to have any kind of broad spraying for ticks,” said Schneiderman. “What I’d like to see is a multi-faceted approach.”
Potential solutions Schneiderman thinks the county should look into include cutting grass along roadways, improved trail maintenance programs, controlled burns in certain locations and using the 4-poster deer tick program. Already implemented on Shelter Island, the 4-poster technique uses deer feeding stations to apply permethrin, an insecticide that kills ticks, directly to the animal’s neck and head where ticks tend to gather.
North Haven resident Dr. Josephine DeVincenzi, who has been vocal in her efforts to implore village officials to look at ways to control the tick population, is supportive of the resolution and hopeful that the county will develop a comprehensive approach to dealing with tick borne illnesses.
“It is critically important that we begin to address the TBD (tick borne disease) issue on a regional level,” she said. “We should demand from the Suffolk County Vector Control people a plan, but that plan needs to take into account the real science on this issue and it’s not just throw more pesticides into the environment. The 4-Poster program targets the pesticides to the source of the problem.”
Dr. DeVincenzi also supports Schneiderman’s suggested tactics of cleaning up roadsides, leaf litter and other “safe havens for ticks,” working with doctors to improve diagnosis and enhancing public education on prevention, in particular for children. Both Schneiderman and Dr. DeVincenzi discussed the potential to combat ticks at the source not only via deer, but also through rodent management.
“The primary vector for ticks for Lyme disease is actually mice,” explained Schneiderman. “A lot of the focus has been on the deer even though they’re not the main host. The main host is mice.”
An approach to rodent management the legislator considers effective is the use of Tick Tubes, biodegradable, cardboard tubes that attract nesting mice and apply permethrin, (the same insecticide used by 4-poster devices) directly to the mice, killing any ticks that come into contact with the host animal.
According to Schneiderman, he has received a lot of interest from state and federal officials “who realize that they need to come to our assistance,” and is hopeful that that assistance will come in the form of research money so that the county can develop an effective, multi-pronged approach.
Over 3,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported in New York State in 2011, according to CDC. From 1992, when CDC began collecting surveillance data, to 2011, nearly 13,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported in Suffolk County alone. Because data is captured based on county of residence, not county of exposure, and under-reporting is more likely to occur in highly endemic areas like the East End, CDC estimates that actual incidence rates are much higher.
“This is critical,” said Dr. DeVincenzi of the legislation. “We’re spending millions on mosquitos and nothing on ticks.”