Not long after she moved to Woodstock, N.Y. in 2019, Valeda Stull began to feel something was off. “I was having so many memory problems that I thought I had a brain tumor. I would read a book and struggle to find the plot.” The same happened with the doctors trying to figure out her puzzling symptoms. In 2021, she was finally diagnosed with Lyme, the most common tick-borne disease in New York State.
Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted to humans by black-legged tick – also known as deer tick – Lyme disease can lead to a wide range of symptoms. Every year, at least 500,000 cases are diagnosed across the U.S. Even though New York is not among the states with the most cases, the numbers are rising – including in New York City.
In 2021, the city reported 820 cases, followed by over 2,000 the next year, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Most confirmed cases are related to travels to endemic areas, like Connecticut or upstate New York, where Stull lives. But ticks are increasingly prevalent in urban areas, and experts say that one of the causes may be climate change.
“The warmer it gets, the faster ticks develop, increasing the population,” said Maria Diuk-Wasser, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. “Instead of taking three years to develop into an adult, they can now take two. But the biggest impact I see is that ticks now can be year-round.” With milder winter, as the next one should be, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction, instead of hibernating, ticks can stay active.
Diuk-Wasser has studied zoonotic diseases for decades and said that she has never been more worried about tick-borne diseases. Ticks are now seen in places they weren’t before, such as Staten Island. In 2019, a study co-authored by Diuk-Wasser showed that 9 of 10 parks in Staten Island have established tick populations. “And people there are unaware of it, so I think the focus in these emerging areas should be education,” Diuk-Wasser said.
Keeneth Liegner, a physician working with Lyme patients for the last 40 years, agrees. “Even in a state like New York, which has been so heavily affected by the disease, the lack of knowledge is mind-bending,” Liegner said. He is mostly concerned about health practitioners, whose ignorance can delay diagnosis and put patients at greater risk, such as developing the chronic – and most puzzling – form of the disease.
To mitigate the problem, the Department of Parks and Recreation is aiming at deer, the ticks’ harbour. In Staten Island, males have been vasectomized since 2017, leading to a decline of 21% in the deer population in five years. In Long Island, federal officials culled more than 220 deer in the past two years, despite protests from animal advocates. “That’s a big conundrum,” said Diuk-Wasser. “We all love conservation and wildlife, but at the same time, what else can you do?”
Since ticks are not the only ones that rather be outside on warm days, Liegner reinforces the importance of protection when outdoors.
“Nature’s wonderful, but there are dangers out there,” Liegner said. He advises avoiding walking barefoot on grass, using repellents on skin and clothing and doing tick checks before going back inside. “Those are very practical things that can greatly protect you,” he added.
After the ordeal she went through, Stull realized that her prior understanding about the disease was “pretty loose.”
“I knew it was a big deal, but I also thought maybe, you know, I could get lucky,” Stull said. Now, there’s not a single day when ticks don’t cross her mind. Faithful to her love for being close to nature, she still spends most of her free time in the woods or gardening, but taking all the precautions she can. “I never ever want to get sick again,” she said.