Six New York state senators are calling on the state Health Department to act aggressively to stop the spread of the longhorned tick. The species was discovered for the first time in New York earlier this month in Westchester County. A health department official says efforts have already been ramped up.
The July 25 letter to state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker urges his department to ramp up tick collection efforts. Bryon Backenson is Deputy Director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control with DOH. He says tick collection efforts in Westchester have already shifted into high gear.
“We have been collecting in and around areas in Westchester County multiple times a week, as long as the weather cooperates with us, ever since we first found that particular tick,” Backenson says. “And, since then, we’ve found it in multiple locations and we’ve collected a couple hundred of them, easily.”
The tick is native to Australia, New Zealand and eastern Asia. Prior to New York, the tick was found in New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas. Officials say it’s mainly a threat to livestock. And Backenson says the tick has not yet been found on livestock in New York. Officials say the same steps that protect against deer ticks are also effective against the longhorned tick. Backenson says if the longhorned tick shows up in other counties during regular collection efforts, activity would ramp up accordingly.
“We’re going to continue to go back to these locations where we’ve caught them multiple times a week as well as going to other locations to basically see how far away we can find the tick,” says Backenson. “But it’s also really important to look over and over again in a place where you know where the tick exists so that we can sort of map out what the life cycle looks like.”
Republican state Senator Sue Serino is chair of the Senate's Task Force on Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases, and one of the letter’s signers.
“I mean, right now, I think it’s about everybody being vigilant,” Serino says.
Dr. Rick Ostfeld is a disease ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook.
“New York state Health Department is conducting an exemplary statewide surveillance of ticks,” says Ostfeld. “They are one of the few state health departments that are doing this, so they really do have their finger on the pulse.”
In May, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Control Plan. In July’s letter, the senators request that the plan include research into the longhorned tick and solutions to guard against the threat it poses. The letter also asks that DOH coordinate its efforts with the state’s Departments of Environmental Conservation and Agriculture & Markets. Backenson says coordination is already under way. Serino says more research money is needed.
“The governor had not put money in the budget and the Assembly didn’t either. And you got to remember, 75 percent of our legislature is from New York City. They’re really not affected by it like we are in upstate New York. So, but we need the money,” says Serino. “So this year, the Senate put $1 million in and it’s still not enough. You think about it, $1 million for all of New York state. That’s not a lot of money for research.”
Meantime, Backenson says testing for pathogens likely will begin in August.
“People are concerned about pathogens that this tick has carried in other parts of the world, but we don’t necessarily know what it might carry here in the United States and, particularly, in New York. We don’t know if it can potentially carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, for example,” Backenson says. “One of the things we’re going to do is try and look for the pathogens that are local to New York, here. We’re going to look for veterinary pathogens. That’s where Cornell comes in. And we’re also going to try and look for, at animals as well. If these ticks don’t feed on small rodents, like mice and chipmunks, and moles and voles, for example, their likelihood of carrying the bacteria goes way down.”
The Cary Institute’s Ostfeld says this kind of pathogen testing is important but wants to see more.
“But we should also be looking for the viral pathogens that they carry in their native range. And that’s a different kind of diagnostic tool, and I think we should get on top of that very quickly, if the public health community is not already doing so,” Ostfeld says. “We need to know if they’re carrying the viruses that can make us quite sick. And it looks like, so far, there’s no sign of those viruses, that’s the good thing, but sometimes they’re quite rare and we need to sample a boatload of ticks in order to find these rare pathogens if they occur.”
DOH says it will add other pathogens to its testing as warranted. And Backenson says testing in other states has not turned up any pathogens.