Deirdre the Tick greeted people arriving for a panel discussion sponsored by Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Center at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.
By Stephen J. Kotz
A human sized deer tick named Deirdre, who would have given Godzilla a run for his money at the box office, stood at the foot of Sag Harbor’s Long Wharf Saturday morning, greeting the audience arriving at Bay Street Theater for “Tick-Borne Diseases: What You Should Know.”
After Deirdre hammed it up a bit for the cameras before the event, sponsored by Southampton Hospital’s Tick Borne Disease Center, things got serious.
Robert Chaloner, the hospital’s president and chief executive officer, said the hospital had launched the tick center earlier this year to provide information to the growing number of East Enders who have come down with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases such as babesiosis and ehrlichiosis.
“As public health people we believe the best way to combat disease is through education,” he said, noting that the goal of the center is to educate both the public and health practitioners.
Another goal, he said, is to provide the public with help to find they kind of medical services they need to cope with tick-borne diseases. To that end, Deborah Maile, a registered nurse, will be available by phone at (631) 726-TICK to answer questions, Mr. Chaloner said.
According to one of the panelists, Dr. Steven Schutzer, a physician and professor at Rutgers-NJ Medical School, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now estimates that there are more than 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease a year, which he largely attributed to better reporting. Not long ago, he added, the estimate was perhaps 30,000. By comparison, there are about 54,000 reported cases of salmonella a year, 10,500 cases of tuberculosis and about 5,700 cases of West Nile virus.
Despite improvements in recognizing Lyme, Dr. Schutzer said better tests are needed and researchers are working to provide them. Because Lyme is a slow developing disease—it can take 12 weeks to create a measurable lab culture—it is essential that more blood tests are developed, he said.
Treatment has also lagged, said Dr. Benjamin Luft, a physician and professor at the Stony Brook School of Medicine.
“Since the late 1980s and 90s, we have not been 100 successful” in treating Lyme and “we are stymied as to how to go forward,” he said.
If Lyme is diagnosed and treated early, “it is cured in the vast majority of patients,” he said, while acknowledging that a small number of patients to not respond well to typical treatment, which, he said, is also common among other diseases.
“If I treat you early, there’s no problem. Virtually everyone gets cured,” he said. “If I wait a week, two, four, six weeks, or six months, all of a sudden the ability to treat effectively diminishes.”
He complained that insurance companies are shirking their responsibility in providing coverage, governments are failing to invest enough in research and drug manufacturers are unwilling to take the risk of developing new tests and drugs.
Coming up with a vaccine against Lyme has proven to be difficult, he added, because Lyme has so many different strains. Lyme disease in Connecticut is different than Lyme in New York “and that is just across the Sound.”
Dr. Erin McGintee of East Hampton addressed the growing concern about the Alpha-Gal meat allergy, which she called “midnight anaphylasis.” The allergy to fatty red meats is caused by the bite of the Lone Star tick. Typically patients will get bitten by a tick and a week or two later, they will develop a serious allergic reaction after consuming red meat that includes swelling, redness, hives, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and other symptoms. Often the symptoms appear late at night, typically after the sufferer has consumed red meat at dinner.
She said the allergy could be passed to humans by the bite of Lone Star tick larvae, the only tick larvae to feed on humans and which are often mistaken for chiggers, she said. Lone Star ticks, which were typically found only in the southeast, are now found in half the country.
Since 2011, Dr. McGintee said she has diagnosed 208 cases and now is diagnosing as many as three or four each week.
Physician assistant Jerry Simons focused on offering practical advice for avoiding ticks. Ticks hate the smell of lavender, he said, suggesting that East End residents use soaps and shampoos with that fragrance, spray their yards with insecticide and apply permethrin to their shoes. He also recommended using insect repellent when out in areas where ticks are commonplace. Homeowners should remove piles of leaves and brush from their property to limit nesting options for mice, and he also suggested getting rid of bird baths and bird feeders because birds can carry ticks as well. Mr. Simon added that ticks will typically not cross a 3-foot barrier of wood chips, so he suggested residents might want to ring their property with one.
“The days of having your dog sleep in your bed are really over,” he added, noting that pets often bring ticks into the house.
“Each time I listen to these lectures, I want to go home and wrap myself in Saran Wrap, douse myself with Deet and hid under a rock,” Mr. Chaloner said during the morning’s presentation, “but clearly that is no way to live.”