Lyme disease risk rises with temperatures

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Closeup of a tick
Closeup of a an adult female deer tick.

ATHENS, Ohio — With climate change raising average temperatures in Ohio, a study by Ohio University’s Jeff Vasiloff shows it is plausible that warmer water temperatures and a milder climate have contributed to increased cases of both Legionnaires’ disease and Lyme disease.

Vasiloff, an assistant clinical professor for the College of Health Sciences and Professions explained that climate change and weather changes have been associated with outbreaks of infectious diseases “from the start of time.

With the world’s current climate change era, there is worry that the environment will allow microbes to find new or expanded habitats. Vasiloff’s research focused on the waterborne Legionnaires’ disease and Lyme disease carried by blacklegged ticks.

In Ohio, there were 3,515 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease and 875 cases of Lyme disease from 2005-2016. Incidence per 100,000 of Legionnaires’ disease jumped from 1.8 in 2005 to 4.4 in 2016 and Lyme disease increased from 0.4 in 2005 to 1.4 in 2016.

Temperature increase

Over that time, the average annual air temperature in Ohio increased by 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, the maximum ice coverage of Lake Erie decreased from 89.4 percent from 1975-1995 to 76 percent in 1996-2016.

A respiratory illness, Legionnaires’ disease is not transmitted person-to-person but rather by inhaling the bacteria. Legionella pneumophilia grows in potable water forming biofilms in places such as hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, large plumbing systems and decorative fountains.

Left untreated, life-threatening complications can result from Legionnaires’ disease. Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and skin rash.

Infection spreads

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system if left untreated. Vasiloff’s research shows the presence of blacklegged ticks in less than 14 percent of Ohio’s counties from 1998-2002.

More than 70 percent of Ohio’s counties currently report findings of blacklegged ticks. For those trekking in wooded areas or other locales where ticks may be prevalent, wearing protective clothing and checking for ticks upon returning is important as is checking any animal before letting them enter the house.

“The main thing is that these diseases are both increasing,” said Vasiloff. “There’s an association and no matter what’s causing it, people need to be careful and aware.”

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