How high does Georgia rank in the hazards of ticks and the Lyme disease that they can transmit? A quick classroom survey resulted in an overall response of “very high.” Even the Brenau medical students were putting us on top of the list.
In reality, compared to other U.S. states, the risk of tick-carried Lyme infection in Georgia is quite low.
Lyme disease is carried by blacklegged ticks infected by a bacterium named Borrelia burgdorferi. Human patients develop a large rash resembling the logo of a well-known department store chain. Headaches, chills and fever make it feel like the flu. If treatment is delayed, arthritis and heart disease may follow, and fatalities from Lyme disease have been reported.
Ticks like mild, humid conditions. This would seem to make Georgia a breeding ground for Lyme disease. But in 2016, according to the Center for Disease Control, our state had 4 cases. In Pennsylvania, there were 2,455. One year earlier, in 2015, that state reported an astonishing 8,988 cases of this dangerous infection.
Even though we think of Georgia as warm and humid, the black legged, or “deer tick” seems to prefer 14 states in New England and the upper Midwest, where 95 percent of all Lyme disease cases occur. Other ticks with less risk for Lyme infection are more common in our state.
It’s interesting that most predictions of climatic changes in the next few decades call for milder winters in the northeastern and north central states, and increasing moisture. Of course, predicting the climate is mostly the business of computer programs, and they are wrong as often as they are correct.
Daily weather changes, the undulations of the jet stream, and other quick changes can ruin the nicest forecast model. One only has to remember the warming trend observed in the 1980s, when suddenly the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo put a stop to it in 1991.
But a student of mine combined a chart of “milder” predicted conditions with “more humid” ones. She then overlaid it on a map of states showing the frequency of Lyme disease. The result was the likelihood of strong future increases in Wisconsin, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Georgia remained unaffected by this possible byproduct of climate change. But states in the north central and New England regions would do well to be prepared for more frequent tick bites.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.