Excessive development of rural countryside, which leads to
the loss of some animal species there, could be the reason the
Capital Region and other areas of New York have seen recent
spikes in rates of Lyme disease, according to a study being
published this week.
A group of researchers, including a biologist from Union College,
have concluded in a paper to be published in Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences that biodiversity loss contributes
to increased rates of Lyme disease in people. The study is scheduled
to appear online this week at http://www.pnas.org and then later
The new theory is based on something known as the “dilution
effect.” Lyme disease is spread by ticks, which pick up
the sometimes debilitating illness from other animals that carry
it. But not all animals are good hosts for Lyme disease.
If ticks have only one or two species to feed on — and
those species allow the bacteria to thrive and spread —
then many of the ticks will become infected and pass the disease
to people. If there are more animals for the ticks to feed on,
then it’s more likely some of those animals won’t
be Lyme disease carriers. In that case, the occurrence of Lyme
disease in ticks — and people — will be diluted,
the researchers conclude.
More research will need to be done to prove whether the scientists
are correct. The study’s researchers have received a $1.6
million grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand
their work over four years in six states — New York, Massachusetts,
Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“This is still preliminary, there are many, many unknowns,
and this could prove to be extremely important or it could prove
to be not important,” said Kathleen LoGiudice, assistant
professor of biology at Union College and one of four authors
on the paper.
Lyme disease is most prevalent in the northeastern United States,
and experienced a significant increase in New York state and
the Capital Region in 2002. Outside New York City, the state
logged 5,036 cases of Lyme disease in 2002, according to preliminary
data from the state Health Department. That’s a 26 percent
increase over 2001.
In the four-county Capital Region, rates of Lyme disease climbed
81 percent, to 313 cases in 2002. The jump in Albany County
alone was 161 percent, to 172 cases. Columbia County logged
990 cases in 2002, up 56 percent from 2001.
When areas are deforested, many species can no longer survive
in them. But the white-footed mouse, which is a good carrier
for Lyme disease bacteria, can live just about anywhere. According
to LoGiudice and her colleagues, the white-footed mouse infects
between 40 percent and 90 percent of the tiniest ticks that
feed on it.
Other hosts for ticks are not such good carriers for Lyme bacteria.
They include squirrels, shrews, opossums and raccoons.
After taking a look at the paper, state Wildlife Pathologist
Ward Stone said he was intrigued by the theory. It had him wondering
whether sharp increases in other diseases could be attributed
to biodiversity loss. Crows, for instance, spread West Nile
virus to the mosquitoes that then bite people and infect them.
And crows have become increasingly prevalent in the suburbs
as other species have been driven away, Stone said.
“It’s a very interesting concept that a lot of scientists
like myself will be thinking about in relation to various zoonotic
diseases — diseases that are transmissible from animals
to people,” Stone said.
One hope of the researchers is that the study, if proven true
with further research, could have implications for land use
policy, LoGiudice said. Fragmented development, for instance,
is likely to result in less biodiversity. The challenge to planners
is to maintain continuous tracts of forest where a variety of
species can survive.
But one area planner said developers are unlikely to consider
the research in their work. In response to the desires of home
buyers, developers are increasingly keeping neighborhoods far
apart from each other — which provides less opportunity
for continuous wilderness and more need to drive long distances,
said Todd Fabozzi, program manager for the Capital District
Regional Planning Commission. Neither consequence is good for
the environment, he said.
“It spreads out development, so that it eats up more land,”
Research was done at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in
Millbrook, Dutchess County. The study’s other authors
are Richard S. Ostfeld of the institute, Kenneth A. Schmidt
of Texas Tech University and Felicia Kessing of Bard College
FACTS:LYME DISEASE SPREADS
Rates of Lyme disease jumped statewide and in several Capital
Region counties in 2002.
|Statewide, excluding NYC
Source: New York State Department of Health