Surge In Mice Is A Harbinger For Lyme Disease : Goats and Soda Lyme disease is spreading, and this summer is shaping up as a whopper. Why has the tick-borne illness gotten so bad? The answer traces back to something the colonists did more than 200 years ago.
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Forbidding Forecast For Lyme Disease In The Northeast

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Forbidding Forecast For Lyme Disease In The Northeast

Forbidding Forecast For Lyme Disease In The Northeast

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an early warning in Your Health this morning. Ecologists are expecting a really bad season for Lyme disease.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Their warning applies to parts of the Northeast this spring and summer. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports on the really gross reason the ecologists expect a bad season.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: When Felicia Keesing returned home from a trip last summer, she found her home in upstate New York had been subject to an invasion.

FELICIA KEESING: There was evidence of mice everywhere. They had just completely taken it over.

DOUCLEFF: It was a plague of mice, an infestation. And it landed right in Keesing's kitchen. Her husband, Rick Ostfeld, says there weren't just signs the mice had been there. There were actual bodies.

RICK OSTFELD: Dead mice on the floor.

KEESING: You cannot start this story this way.

DOUCLEFF: (Laughter).

KEESING: This is disgusting. I still have nightmares about the mouse plague.

OSTFELD: Yeah. That was bad.

DOUCLEFF: The whole Hudson River Valley was experiencing a mass infestation last summer. The critters were everywhere. For most people, it was just a nuisance. But for Keesing and Ostfeld, it signaled something foreboding. You see, they're both ecologists who've studied Lyme disease for 20 years at Bard College in the Cary Institute. Lyme is transmitted by ticks. And they've discovered that a mouse plague in the summer means a Lyme plague the following year because ticks love mice.

OSTFELD: An individual mouse might have 50, 60, a hundred ticks covering its ears and the rest of its face.

DOUCLEFF: So seeing all these mice means that there's going to be a lot of Lyme disease cases?

OSTFELD: Yeah. I'm sorry to say, that's the scenario we're expecting.

DOUCLEFF: While Keesing and Ostfeld were noticing the mouse invasion, across the country in Colorado, two other scientists were noticing another worrying trend. They work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of them is Kiersten Kugeler. She says a few decades ago, Lyme disease wasn't that common.

KIERSTEN KUGELER: Back in the early '90s, about 10,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported each year in the U.S.

DOUCLEFF: Today, it's much, much worse.

KUGELER: We think that the true burden of Lyme disease in the U.S. is about 300,000 cases each year.

DOUCLEFF: Wow. That's a lot, isn't it?

KUGELER: It is a lot. Lyme disease is quite a big public health problem.

DOUCLEFF: Here's how Lyme disease happens. Mice and some other small creatures carry around this little bacteria shaped like a fusilli pasta. The mouse passes the bacteria onto a tick, which then passes the bacteria onto a person when it bites. Lyme causes a fever, headache, arthritis and sometimes a red rash. In bad cases, it can damage the heart.

Back in the '80s, Lyme cases were confined to two small areas - southern New England and western Wisconsin. Rebecca Eisen, also at the CDC, says now cases are spreading in all directions.

REBECCA EISEN: They've spread to the North, the Southeast and the West. The only place that they haven't spread is into the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.

DOUCLEFF: Today, Lyme is common in a big swath of the country. It starts up in Maine, swoops down the East Coast into Virginia, hops to the Midwest into Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And then there are pockets on the West Coast.

EISEN: A lot of people are seeing ticks in places where they didn't see them 20 years ago.

DOUCLEFF: So why is Lyme spreading like this? That question is simple, but the answer is complicated. Scientists say climate change might be part of it, as well as the explosion of deer, which carry ticks and spread them around. But Ostfeld has found another reason, something that happened 200 years ago. He takes me into the forest near his lab in upstate New York to show me what he means.

OSTFELD: It's a bit of a walk. It's not very far.

DOUCLEFF: OK. We're going to hike in. We're in the heart of the Hudson River Valley. And it's gorgeous. The hills are covered with oaks. And the valley is a patchwork of hayfields. But Ostfeld says this area didn't always look like this. When the Europeans came here hundreds of years ago, they cut down nearly all of the forest to plant their crops, feed their animals.

OSTFELD: They also cut down trees for various kinds of commerce, making masts for ships, for building, for firewood.

DOUCLEFF: Since then, a lot of the forest has come back. But it's not the same. It's not one big forest. It's broken up into little pieces, fragmented with roads, farms and housing developments. For mice, this has been great news.

OSTFELD: They tend to thrive in these degraded, fragmented landscapes.

DOUCLEFF: Because their predators, like foxes, hawks and owls, which eat the mice, need big forests to survive. And without them...

OSTFELD: That's a holiday for the mice.

DOUCLEFF: They crank out babies like nobody's business. And we end up with these forests packed with mice, mice that are chronically infected with Lyme and covered in ticks.

OSTFELD: So the mice reach very high abundance in little one-acre wood lots in the middle of suburbia. And as go the mice, so go the infected ticks.

DOUCLEFF: And so goes the Lyme disease.

OSTFELD: Exactly.

DOUCLEFF: So all these little patches of forest dotting the Northeast have turned into Lyme factories. And people come along, Keesing says, and build their dream homes right next door.

KEESING: Humans are putting themselves in these areas where they're, in a sense, most at risk. And then they're modifying the environment to make it - that - it even riskier.

DOUCLEFF: That means people aren't just at risk when they're camping or hiking. The CDC's Kiersten Kugeler says most people catch Lyme disease just hanging out around their homes.

KUGELER: People out gardening, people playing in their backyard, mowing the lawn. People may be putting themselves at risk every single day without even knowing it.

DOUCLEFF: So what can you do to keep from getting infected? Kugeler says a good thing to do is to add a tick check to your daily routine. Now, these animals are tiny, about the size of a poppy seed. So when you're in the shower, check your body for tiny ticks, especially the places they like to hide.

KUGELER: That's the scalp, behind the ears, the armpits and in the groin area.

DOUCLEFF: If you do find a tick, get it off as quickly as possible. The longer the tick stays on your skin, the higher the chance it will inject the Lyme bacteria into your blood. Next, be on the lookout for symptoms like a rash or a fever. If anything crops up, go see a doctor immediately. Don't wait. The earlier you get treated, the better chance you have for a full recovery. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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