By Claire Walla
What’s small, black, and has the potential to give you up to a dozen different diseases?
Chances are, if you live on the East End, you didn’t even have to progress past the first four words of that sentence to come to the answer.
And according to numerous accounts, the presence of this poppy seed-size insect is more bountiful this year than last.
Though ticks are prevalent around the world, East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny said one of the reasons they flourish in this area has to do with geography.
“When you add up all the mammals and birds, there are an awful lot of animals out here per square foot,” Penny explained.
Though it also has to do with nature.
“It’s mainly a predator/prey cycle thing,” Penny explained. “It has to do with the population of the mammals that [ticks] live on,” he said. “The deer, vole and raccoon populations are really high this year.”
Especially vole. Penny said the population for this small mouse-like rodent has “sky-rocketed” ever since the fox population began to decline on the East End.
“They’re almost at a record high out here,” he added.
Such news is certainly unpleasant to those who cringe at any noted upsurge in the bug population, but it’s more universally unsettling when it comes to issues of public health.
There are three tick varieties known to live on the East End, and each can carry what’s known as Lyme disease, an ailment that can affects the central nervous system and — if left untreated — can bring-on symptoms that are similar in characteristics to arthritis, multiple sclerosis and ALS.
Larry Penny is no stranger to Lyme.
“It starts with an achiness here or there, then your head gets foggy,” explained Penny, who was stricken with the disease after being bitten by a tick while working in the field. “I had a strong central nervous system, but it affected my memory and my judgment.”
By Penny’s estimate, at least 50 percent of the population of the East End has been bitten by a tick — either a deer tick (the most prevalent), dog tick (the largest size-wise) or Lone Star tick. Penny added that about 40 percent of them are thought to carry the spirochete that causes Lyme disease.
If detected early enough, the disease can be combated with a dose of antibiotics.
But, Penny added that some people can contract a-symptomatic Lyme disease, in which the bacteria will lay dormant in the body until months, or even years down the road.
Penny told of a woman he knew who was bitten by a tick at age 14 and thought nothing of it until — 15 years later — she started to exhibit long-term symptoms of the disease. Only after a spinal tap did she discover she had Lyme, and by that point she needed intravenous treatments and antibiotics.
“Those are the worst,” he said, “because you might not treat them until you’re in bad shape.”
Having originated in Texas, Penny said the Lone Star tick is the most recent to have been discovered in the area. Based on the results of a process called “flagging for ticks” — during which a piece of cloth is dragged through foliage, theoretically collecting ticks along the way — Penny said in 1993 this species was only found to exist in Montauk and on Gardiner’s Island.
“But by 2000, they were pretty much all over East Hampton,” he added.
“It’s very fast in its movements compared to the deer tick,” Penny continued, adding that the Lone Star is distinguished from deer and dog ticks by the white dot on its back. Whereas the deer tick is rarely found in foliage above the knee, the Lone Star Tick can climb four or five feet high, Penny added.
“It’s a real scrambler,” he said.
In addition to Lyme, ticks can spread other diseases like Babesiosis and West Nile Virus.
“It always amazes me that people are more worried about West Nile disease — which we have seen out here, but is very rare — as opposed to Lyme disease,” Penny added.
Part of the problem with Lyme, said East Hampton resident and author Jay McInerney, is that the blood tests meant to detect the disease aren’t always accurate.
“Both of my kids have been diagnosed with Lyme disease,” McInerney said. “And unfortunately, they weren’t diagnosed early enough.”
McInerney said his son and daughter (twins) both got tick bites around age 14, and when they were tested for Lyme, the results came back negative. It wasn’t until two years later, when symptoms began to crop up, that his children first began seeking medical attention.
He said his children have missed about a year of school in the process of getting the diagnosis. Having traveled throughout New York and New Jersey seeking medical help, he added that “Lyme-literate” doctors are hard to come by on the East End.
“The tests seem to be only semi-reliable,” McInerney continued. “For anyone who goes through the standard protocol of two weeks of antibiotics and still has symptoms, you’re operating in a mysterious area after that.”
Stacey Sobel is the executive director of an organization called Turn the Corner, whose sole purpose is to educate people about the presence of ticks and the consequences of tick bites. The organization maintains a website where people can read about Lyme disease and solicit advice. A big part of Turn the Corner’s mission is also to educate doctors around the world on how to detect early signs of Lyme, and other tick-born illnesses. So far, Sobel said about 100 doctors have been trained in the U.S.
“Ticks carry multiple bacteria,” she explained. In addition to Lyme, there are at least 11 other diseases that can be contracted from the small black bugs.
For this reason, East End physician Dr. Joseph Burrascano calls ticks “nature’s dirty needles.”
Though he closed his practice about three years ago, Dr. Burrascano still educates doctors and communities about the potential harms and preventative measure associated with ticks.
“It’s very controversial,” Dr. Burrascano said of Lyme disease. “In the early state of Lyme’s, it takes four or more weeks for the bacteria to show. And because the blood test currently looks for a person’s reaction to the disease — rather than the actual Lyme bacteria itself — the results can be spotty.
“If you’ve never had Lyme before, the chance of a false positive is about five percent,” he said. However, he added that one’s blood work can still come out positive “sometimes for months, or sometimes for years,” even if the bacteria is gone.
“The trick is to find it early and treat it,” Dr. Burrascano said. “If you really think it’s Lyme, take the antibiotic. Get some treatment going early. A doctor can give you a week’s supply of medicine [while waiting for the results of blood work],” he continued.
As for Sobel, she added, “People need to be educated and aware. The longer it goes untreated, the sicker you can get.”
The best method of prevention, as far as Sobel’s concerned, is taking proactive measures to avoid tick bites in the first place. She and Penny both caution East End residents to wear long clothing when traveling though tall grasses, and try not to brush up against any kind of foliage. And most important: check yourself after being outside.
Since his children came down with the disease, McInerney said ticks have been high on his radar.
“It’s not just my kids, I have a lot of friends who have been affected by ticks. It’s tough if you’re a pet lover. I actually know people who sold their houses and left this area [because of ticks],” McInerney noted.
But, he added, he has no plans to move anytime soon.
“I check myself really carefully, I don’t really go in the woods this time of year, we treat our lawn (by keeping it really short) … and I try not to rub up against any brush,” he explained. “For better or worse, I don’t feel entirely disillusioned with my environment.”
A screening of the award-winning documentary “Under Our Skin” will take place on Sunday, June 26 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Vared Gallery in East Hampton. A Q&A with Turn the Corner Executive Director Stacey Sobel and Dr. Leo Galland and Dr. Jeffrey Morrison (medical specialists on Lyme disease) will immediately follow.