BOSTON, MA — As you enjoy your leisurely walk in the woods or fields this summer, nearly invisible ticks may be waiting in the grass to make you a meal and potentially pass along dangerous pathogens. Lyme disease, one of the most common tick-borne illnesses, is on the rise — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there may be as many as 300,000 cases of the infection per year in the United States, though many of these could go undetected.
In 2015, according to the most recent data, more than 28,000 people had confirmed cases of Lyme in the country. In Massachusetts, there were 2,922 confirmed cases and another 1,302 probable (there were a total of 2,336 in 2005.) Only three other states – Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey – had more in 2015. Pennsylvania was the hardest-hit state, with 7,351 cases in 2015, compared with 4,287 a decade earlier. That’s a rate of 57.4 infections per 100,000 people.
But a new study may point to a promising approach to fighting the spread of the disease and help explain why it has been on the rise. And it all comes down to foxes.
Tim R. Hofmeester, a graduate student at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, led a recently published study that exposes humanity’s part in driving up the spread of tick-borne illnesses like Lyme. By fracturing habitats and disrupting ecosystems, humans have allowed the ticks that feed on wild mice to flourish — and these intrusions are coming back to bite us.
Hofmeester and his team monitored 20 different outdoor locations across the Netherlands, tracking predators, mice and the ticks that feed on them. The result is that as predatory animals like foxes proliferate — causing the tick-bearing rodents to scurry and hide in their burrows — fewer of the disease-carrying insects will infest our forests and fields.
But in places where predators are scarce, the ticks run wild.
“The results suggest that predators can indeed lower the number of ticks…