It’s no surprise that our country’s clearinghouse for tracking illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, reports a huge spike in mosquito and tick borne infections. What is a surprise, however, is how huge is huge. Let’s consider not only how complex this problem has become, but also what we can do about it on our own.

CDC finds that these mosquito viruses and tick diseases have more than tripled from 2004 to 2016. Lyme disease no longer has its “ground zero,” its place of most frequent occurrence, in Lyme, Connecticut, the area for which it is named. Today, America’s ground zero for Lyme disease, according to the CDC, is right here on Long Island. The Northeast U.S. shares its own distinction: It is a major part of an “accelerating trend” of infections from these pests, which transmit these germs from their bite. These biting, disease-bearing pests are referred to as “vectors.” In this 12-year timeframe, nine newly discovered germs have spread rapidly from vectors’ bites, and ticks carry seven of these.

Actual epidemics from these vectors originate with mosquitos in other countries, but these once-exotic diseases have gained a growing foothold here in the U.S. West Nile virus has recently been joined in the US by viruses called Zika and Chikugunya for the first time. And a good argument can be made, though CDC dodges it, that a Lyme epidemic is well underway here on Long Island.

The CDC reported that 604,000 cases of these vector infections, mainly Lyme from ticks and viruses from mosquitos, occurred nationwide during this ’04 to ’16 time frame. In the casual tone that many government bureaucrats have mastered, the director of their Vector Borne Disease Division, Lyle Petersen, mentions matter-of-factly that the number of Lyme disease cases that occurs each year is at least ten times higher than is actually reported.

And then there’s the spread of these vectors. For example, doctors now report that Lone Star ticks, whose range was believed to be on the East Coast, are now feeding on their patients in Colorado. In fact, the CDC has documented that mosquito and tick infections have spread into vast, new areas. A thriving white tail dear population has become a major factor in this spread. Commerce also moves mosquitos, ticks and fleas around the world.

So how goes our struggle against these vectors and the costly and deadly illness they bring with their bites? In two understated words: not well. While state and local health departments are the nation’s main vector disease defense, CDC finds that 84 percent of these local, vector control agencies face overwhelming demand, while “lacking competencies” to do their job.

Here in Suffolk County, vector control verges on being an afterthought in the budget process. The county legislature would be wise to hold hearings and scrutinize our mosquito and tick control programs in order to put together a solid and environmentally sensible action plan to kill mosquitos and ticks at every life stage, as CDC recommends for all such agencies. Suffolk’s Vector Control Unit needs to use data far more smartly to control mosquitos and ticks locally, as well as to monitor and track them.

The season is soon upon us where Suffolk’s Vector Control will make their almost daily press announcements of where next they will “spray” for mosquitos. Yet the public is catching on that this is so much fluff, designed to calm us into the belief that something is being done. In fact, these mosquito spraying programs have little effect upon mosquito infestation, except for those mosquitos that are actually in flight at the time of the spray truck’s brief drive-by. Their resources would be better spent educating the public about draining every item of standing water where mosquitos breed, even something as small as a bottle cap, or as unsuspecting as an unused tire.

And while government gets its act together, we should take some meaningful steps of our own. Back in the summer of 2004, the State of Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station published their most helpful tick management handbook, with some simple landscaping techniques that will significantly reduce tick populations.

Start with removing leaf litter, despite the growing trend to let leaves stay in some places to encourage wildlife, especially pollinators. Clear tall grass and brush around homes and at edge of lawns. Place a three-foot-wide path of gravel or wood chips as a barrier between lawns and wooded parcels to restrict tick migration into recreational areas; mow lawns frequently; stock wood neatly and in a dry area to control rodents; locate decks, patios and playground equipment away from yard edges and trees; and discourage unwelcome animals – the real rub.

Raccoons, stray dogs and cats, and especially deer can be limited to some degree by fences. Some is better than nothing. Our Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead can help with advice on the kinds of fence that work best.

But the over-abundant white tail deer pose a real challenge throughout Long Island. As communities right here on the North Fork divide into many contentious camps on how to reduce the deer, their numbers increase rapidly.

According to Scientific American, deer number more than 20 million in the U.S. today. Prior to the white settlement of the New World, there were tens of millions more than that, but were so cut in numbers by free-roaming predators and unregulated hunting that there were less than 500,000 by the early 1900s. This prompted many states to restrict hunting, while sharply reducing bears, wolves and mountain lions, in turn resulting in such a rebound in deer as to be viewed ironically as one of the nation’s greatest conservation success stories. But outdated land management policies and haphazard wildlife management guidelines, including quirky hunting regs, contribute to our ubiquitous deer, who carry and spread vectors to the point of our North Fork’s saturation.

Like it or not, the use of synthetic chemicals in this losing battle rises dramatically. The CDC makes mention of of a repellant called “permethrin.” Many websites sing the praises of this chemical, which seems effective when used to treat boots, pants, socks, tents, etc. Permethrin-treated clothing and camping and hiking gear are now on the market. As usual, research into the health effects of its use has been done chiefly by the manufacturer, concluding, of course, that it’s safe. Further to the prevention defense in this vector war are chemical repellents applied on the person. Learn more about EPA-registered insect repellants that are effective against these insatiable vectors here.

So as the ticks and mosquitos seem to be winning, and as the best minds in science seem take one or two steps forward and three steps back, at least we have some ideas here to help us survive. Maybe the day will arrive when a new vaccination will be available for all of us. Clearly it’s harder to develop a serum when new vector-borne diseases, as we have seen, emerge with regularity. Many doubted, however, that we could ever come up with a vaccination for yellow fever, yet we did. But wait a minute — better get that serum ready again — the CDC tells us yellow fever is rebounding in South and Central America and is soon to join us here.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg