Already embattled by climactic changes that threaten to turn our seasons upside down, gardeners might not welcome the news of other threats on the world horizon– but these are challenging times. Before the 1970’s who would have guessed that suburban Connecticut could become the epicenter of a disease humans contracted through contact with the natural world, transmitted by wildlife? Yet, in 1975, the first cases of what would become known as Lyme disease were reported in the town of Old Lyme—and it gradually became apparent that the problem originated in deer and mice populations. Although Lyme Disease remains primarily a northeastern problem, it also affects north-central states, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, and parts of northern California.
The National Institute of Health, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth lists (1) outdoor activities that increase tick exposure in an area where Lyme disease is known to occur, (2) having a pet that may carry ticks home, and (3) walking in high grass as the highest risk factors for Lyme Disease.
You’ll notice they do not mention working in greenhouses. Unless your structure possesses doorways with unusually wide and high clearance –welcoming to deer– or you foolishly allowed those cute white-footed mice to move their family in last fall– gardening inside your greenhouse is an excellent option.
For the rest of us, precaution is the better part of valor. All official recommendations involve long sleeves, and long pants tucked into socks. Copious insect repellant. For those who find such outfits cumbersome, there is the critical visual check following exposure–necessary whenever we’ve been outdoors, and best aided by another’s eyes. Unfortunately, black-legged ticks, the infamous vectors of this disease, are so tiny that few can see them. Their bites may itch, and leave large bulls-eye red rings behind– but many Lyme victims never saw the tick.
There is some good news: most people bitten by ticks do not get Lyme disease. Also, the tick must be attached to your body for 24-36 hours before the bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, is transmitted into your blood stream. Diagnosed early, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics–but without treatment, damage can affect the joints, heart and nervous system.
This year, the especially bad news is that, according to Rick Ostfeld, Ecologist at the Carey Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., the small acorn crop of 2011 has negatively impacted mouse populations. With fewer mice available, ticks will seek alternate hosts. That’s why this is a very good time to take all the precautions you can.