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Researchers hope new shot will prevent Lyme disease

December 3, 2019 -  By
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There may soon be an injection available for the prevention of Lyme disease. Photo: iStock.com/MarianVejcik

There may soon be an injection available for the prevention of Lyme disease. (Photo: iStock.com/MarianVejcik)

As an occupation, landscape contracting employees run one of the highest risks for getting Lyme disease. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) identifies landscape workers as being among the 10 highest risk occupations due to their work in and around prime deer tick habitats.

Help may be on the Way

Recently, scientists from the publicly funded nonprofit MassBiologics announced  they are ready to begin human trials of an injection that will place Lyme disease antibodies directly into patients. Their hope is that the injections will allow the body to attack and repel the Lyme disease bacteria. Dr. Mark Klempner, head of MassBiologics, says the trial needs to be done in an area free of Lyme disease, so that it will be clear that antibodies in the blood come from the injection and not from previous exposure.

If all goes well in the trials, MassBiologics believes the injections could be available to the general public by 2023.

The deer tick, the primary vector for the spread of Lyme disease, is only slightly larger than the period at the end of this sentence. A bite from the small, pinhead-size tick can transmit the bacteria that cause the disease in humans. Those who work outdoors around grasses, meadows, parks, wooded areas and other natural areas are most susceptible.

Early detection is key

If caught early, Lyme disease can be treated effectively with antibiotics. But the symptoms of Lyme disease are often confused with other ailments, such as the flu and general aches and pains. Left untreated, Lyme disease can be very debilitating, leading to permanent joint damage, organ failure and neurological impairment. Click here for the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) web page on the early signs and symptoms of Lyme disease.

Data from the CDC, which tracks Lyme disease incidence nationally, shows that reported and confirmed Lyme disease cases numbered more than 100,000 since 2015. But the CDC estimates that only about 10 percent of Lyme disease cases are reported, so the actual number could be much higher.

The states with the highest incidence of Lyme disease, stretch from Maine, south throughout New England, into the mid-Atlantic states to Virginia and West Virginia. Two Midwestern states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, also rank in the top states for Lyme disease risk. Click here for an interactive map of Lyme disease incidence across the country from 2012 to 2018 that shows the growth of the disease.

What is causing this spread of Lyme disease? The CDC points to several factors.

Ticks like the warmer weather

First is climate change. The U.S. has been having milder winters and warmer summers. The warmth and increased rainfall have created good conditions for these pests to thrive. Climate change has also allowed the range of insects once known to live only in tropical climates to expand northward.

Moving into tick country

Second, as the population grows, housing development is pushing further into previously unoccupied areas home to ticks.

Not just Lyme disease anymore

Third, the sheer number of diseases carried by ticks, some never seen before in the U.S., is increasing at an alarming rate. Your chances of getting a nasty disease from a tick bite is now much more likely. The CDC has identified 16 diseases that are carried by ticks, some much worse than Lyme disease. Click here for a list of these 16 tick-borne diseases and the ticks that carry them. Presumably, the new Lyme disease injection will not protect you from these other diseases.

How to protect yourself and your employees

Landscape companies should have in place a good training program for employees about how to avoid contracting tick-borne diseases. As we know, landscape employees are one of the most vulnerable occupational groups for contracting these diseases.

The CDC recommends:

  • Use an Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellent.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Treat items, such as boots, pants, socks and tents, with permethrin or use permethrin-treated clothing and gear.
  • Find and remove ticks daily from yourself.

The CDC has an excellent resource page with more information about how to protect yourself and your workers from ticks.

The EPA has a webpage that will help you select the insect repellant that is best for you. Click here for that page.

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About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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