Our project’s primary goal is to decrease the number and severity of cases of Lyme disease, especially Chronic and Post-Treatment Lyme Disease. There is a common misconception that built environments such as city parks, college campuses, playgrounds and residential neighborhoods are safe compared to rural or wilderness areas. We have new evidence to suggest that people living, working and recreating in and around built environments have a significant risk of infection.
In 2012, we began wondering why there was so much confusion over the diagnosis of Lyme disease, why people with long-term clinical symptoms were so ostracized by the medical community and subsequently by health care providers, and why in our area of Upstate New York where few cases of Lyme have ever been reported, there seemed to be a vast increase in the numbers of deer ticks over the past decade. That same year, we began undertaking a study to estimate tick densities. We collected a few ticks in rural and wilderness areas and tested them using our molecular laboratory on the Binghamton University campus to see what percent were infected. To our great surprise, these few ticks (originally under 50) showed a high infection rate (over 40%) for Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete that causes Lyme disease. We were quite shocked by these early findings which were inconsistent with the number of reported Lyme disease cases (18.2 per 100,000 people in Broome County [NYS Department of Health 2011]) and decided to begin looking more systematically in an attempt to verify our initial results. In order to make the effort an educational exercise we used the Binghamton University campus as the initial research site, so that students could participate and gain valuable research experience. Because the university has a182-acre Nature Preserve adjacent to the main campus, it was a good place to start looking for ticks on a larger scale. There we thought we would find an abundant number of ticks in this wild setting, but to our great surprise we found very few. We then began searching small microecological areas composed of trees, grasses and low vegetation on the 600+ acre campus proper near to where students, faculty, and staff are living, walking, eating, recreating, and participating in other activities outdoors on a regular basis. We began finding many ticks near high foot traffic walkways to and from dormitory areas in, around and through building complexes, a density over seven times higher than in the much less traveled, non-built environment of the Nature Preserve.
We began to wonder why the tick densities and tick infection rates were much higher in built environments and in 2013, we set in motion formal research to systematically understand the complex interaction of what was happening in this campus community. Our research using over 2000 ticks collected on campus, is now yielding significant information that strongly indicates that built environments are not safe havens and that the risk of infection may in fact be much higher than in rural and wilderness areas.
In 2014, we greatly expanded our study to include the surrounding peri-urban environments of Broome County, a built community of 198,000 people where we are now investigating areas such as city parks, nearby recreation areas, even neighborhood backyards where children, adults and pets spend much of their time.
In 2015, we made a major commitment to further expand our study to include the entire Upper Susquehanna River Basin and Southern Tier of New York, consisting of six counties (Broome, Chenango, Delaware, Otsego, Tioga and Tompkins). This area is adjacent to the Hudson River Valley which has the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the nation.
Our primary focus is on determining the risk of acquiring Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses such as anaplasmosis and babesisos in high foot traffic environments and to develop public health strategies to minimize this emerging epidemic in Upstate New York and elsewhere in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest, the most densely populated areas of the country.
We are also working with Lyme patients who have suffered inordinately from their illness, some for many years. Preliminary data from a new survey in this region suggests that 70% of patients who have been diagnosed with Lyme disease by a physician were not cured after their initial treatment, and 85% of those patients had symptoms lasting more than 2 years. Of the patients with symptoms lasting over 2 years, 78% of them still have ongoing symptoms, with a large percentage of them experiencing symptoms for more than 5 years.