Deadly New Threats from Biting Insects

Going outdoors is becoming increasingly more dangerous because biting insects are spreading a host of new diseases.


According to a May 1 report from U.S. federal health officials, the number of people who have been infected from bites by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas has risen by a factor of three in recent years.

One of the resulting problems of this is Lyme disease. It is now epidemic in many parts of North America and is infecting hundreds of thousands of people each year, yet it is extremely difficult to be tested for, most doctors know little or nothing about it, treatment is often ineffective and insurance companies have conspired to deny coverage for treatment.

Lyme disease is of particular concern for several reasons.

The ticks that carry the disease are themselves spreading more rapidly, especially as climate change is producing waves of warmer weather earlier in the year than ever before. They are also coming farther north than before because of the warmer weather.

Ticks require blood to live. A surprise to many, though, is that they can survive as long as three years without eating. They can remain in grasses or on leaves for all that time, just waiting to find a potential host. According to scientists, they detect those hosts via breath, odors, moisture, vibrations and even shifts in light.

Once they jump onto a person, the process of attaching and biting can take from minutes to as long as two hours. When they bite, they do so very differently from other bloodsucking insects such as mosquitoes. They have saliva that includes a combination of anesthetics (so you don’t feel the bite) and anticoagulants (so the blood flows freely between a person’s body and the tick). The saliva also includes a protein that suppresses the human immune system so people don’t produce antibodies that might kill any kind of bug attached for long.

More than two dozen different kinds of illnesses are associated with ticks, including Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan disease and, of course, Lyme disease. More recently, there has been an increase in Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, rabbit fever, alpha-gal syndrome, Heartland virus and Bourbon virus. However, of these, perhaps one of the most common and potentially the most serious is Lyme disease.

One of the challenges with Lyme disease is that the symptoms that appear are often seen as indications of something else. The illness usually starts with a feeling of tiredness or fatigue, fever, headaches and joint or muscle pain. If left untreated, it can produce muscle spasms, loss of motor control, paralysis, heart problems and loss of short-term memory. Doctors often reject the idea that there is something serious behind the symptoms and do not seek lab tests that could isolate the presence of Lyme disease.

Another challenge with Lyme disease is that the spirochete bacteria that causes the disease also infects the white blood cells of the host. That is a problem because most laboratory tests for Lyme disease depend on the proper functioning of your white blood cells in order to track the antibodies they are trying to measure. This is why there are often many false negatives in Lyme disease tests.

A further side effect of the ability of Lyme disease spirochetes to burrow into white blood cells is that in order to get an effective diagnosis of the illness, it may be necessary to begin treatment for it before you are sure you actually have Lyme disease. When the white cells begin to respond to the treatment and regain the ability to work properly again, the tests to detect the presence of Lyme disease will begin to work properly. This is referred to as the “Lyme paradox” – that you have to be treated before you can be properly tested for the illness.

With all of this happening, it is perhaps understandable that doctors will often not treat for the presence of Lyme disease. Consequently, insurance companies will also often not pay for such treatment. With expensive tests and antibiotics perhaps needed to isolate and stop the disease before it gets serious, this often puts the burden of dealing with Lyme disease on the infected individuals themselves.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 300,000 people contract Lyme disease every year, with only a fraction of the cases actually reported because of the inability to detect the illness and its symptoms not being unique. Of the confirmed cases in 2015, 95% came from just 14 states in the United States (though the disease is spreading rapidly to other states): Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. Of those confirmed reported cases, New York has the largest number. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo noted in his “State of the State Book,” in which he proposed a specific state-based control plan for Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, he said:

“In some part[s] of New York State, tick-borne diseases are on the rise, posing a threat to both individual New Yorkers and our regional economies that rely on outdoor recreation. Each year, there are approximately 8,000 cases of Lyme disease, 700 cases of 266 anaplasmosis, 400 cases of babesiosis, 100 cases of ehrlichiosis and 30 cases of other tick-borne illnesses reported to the Department of Health – with many other cases going unreported. And 2017 also brought deadly cases of the rare tick-borne disease Powassan.”

Tick control in the wild is one way that the state of New York and others are working to handle the illness. Even more important is taking care to look for the presence of ticks on you and your family after being outside. If symptoms appear after a while that seem consistent with the presence of Lyme disease, insist both on some treatment and a proper diagnosis.

As a further step in helping slow the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, The Center for Public Integrity has set up a website to gather information about where you or those you know may have contracted the illness and what happened afterwards. The same website also includes links to hear from health professionals who have dealt with tick-borne illnesses. Reporting what happened in contracting the illness, where it happened and what worked in diagnosis and treatment are all important for helping prevent others from suffering. If you have information that would be helpful to share, please take the time to fill out the surveys.

Bulls-eye rash — one of the tell-tale signs of a tick bite from one infected with spirochete bacteria that can cause Lyme disease.