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This tick season figures to be a bad one, starting now

| Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Consider yourself warned.

This figures to be a bad year for ticks across Pennsylvania and the Northeast, with the worst of the bad times all but upon us.

For that, you can blame acorns and mice.

Researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York have been studying Lyme Disease for more than 20 years. They've found a “strong connection” between acorn abundance and Lyme Disease risk, said senior scientist Richard Ostfeld.

It works like this: every few years the woods of the Northeast experience a bumper crop of acorns, as happened in fall 2010. That abundant food leads to a surge in the number of white-footed mice, the best host for newly-hatched baby ticks, as was the case in summer 2011.

The problem is that when the acorn crop returns to normal or even lower-than-average levels, there isn't enough food to go around, and mouse populations plummet. That's what's happened going into this summer. And that's where we come in.

“As those ticks are coming out in droves this year, it's unlikely they're all going to find a white-footed mouse, their favorite host. So they're going to be looking for other ones, like us,” Ostfeld said.

Pennsylvania already is one of the top places for contracting Lyme Disease. It averages 3,000 to 4,000 cases annually, more than just about anywhere in the country, said Holli Senior, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Health.

“We continue to be one of the leading states for Lyme Disease nationwide,” she said.

The disease, once confined to the southeast corner of the state, and still most prevalent there, “appears to be spreading westward and northward, placing larger proportions of our population at risk of disease,” she added.

“Lyme Disease is a significant public health issue in Pennsylvania,” she said.

This is the time of year when most cases of Lyme Disease are contracted, too, given that turkey hunters, fishermen, hikers, campers, and kids are outside.

“The peak of outdoor activity for people is fast approaching, which means the danger season is fast approaching,” Ostfeld said.

That doesn't mean people should be afraid to go outdoors, Senior said. But they should be wearing layers of clothing, spraying themselves with insect repellent and checking themselves for ticks when they get home, she said. Early detection is key to getting treatment, Ostfeld added.

“We're hoping people will use this knowledge and be more vigilant,” agreed Ostfeld.

Consider yourself warned.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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