If your last hike in the woods ended with a tick trying to make a meal of you, you’re not alone: The tiny bloodsuckers have been ruining people’s summers for at least 5,000 years, and they’re enjoying a new golden age. By one measure, deer ticks have expanded their range in the U.S. by 50% since 1996; today they and their bloodsucking brethren are found in all 50 states.
With ticks come tick-borne illnesses. Lyme disease is the most well-known. It can be very serious if left untreated, causing neurological and other damage — and it’s dramatically on the rise. The number of reported cases has soared since the U.S. started keeping track in the early 1980s, to about 30,000 annually, but scientists believe the actual incidence is at least 10 times higher.
And that’s just one illness. Ticks can cause a host of other problems, ranging from the sometimes-fatal Rocky Mountain spotted fever — six times as common as it was in 2000 — to a strange red-meat allergy now spreading in the South. Scientists have discovered more than half a dozen such tick-borne diseases since the turn of the century.
This epidemic of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses demands more urgent attention than it’s currently getting — and far more resources should be deployed to fight it.
Ticks are famously resilient. Understanding the problem will be half the battle, and that will take money. A congressional working group on the issue called for more research, noting last year that the Centers for Disease Control spends $11,459 for each new surveillance case of Hepatitis C versus $302 per case of Lyme. The National Institutes of Health has since boosted its spending on Lyme research, and the CDC is funding new efforts to monitor tick populations. Scientists are also studying possibilities such as using tick-killing fungi and genetically engineering safer ticks. These technologies are a long way from deployment, but they could ultimately reverse the rise.
Vaccine research offers another opportunity. Right now, Americans can get a Lyme vaccine for dogs, but not for humans. The Food and Drug Administration approved one in 1998, but the manufacturer pulled it from the market a few years later amid concerns about side-effects and low sales. This appears to have been a public-health misstep (studies suggested the vaccine was safe). Though the politics of vaccines are still treacherous, researchers are optimistic about the science, with one group heralding what could be “the dawn of a new era”for anti-tick vaccines.
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