Which Deserves Our Full Attention – Zika or Lyme?

By Chris Williams on November 24, 2016.

For most of the U.S., Zika virus season is over, or at least has slowed considerably as winter approaches. Except for isolated portions of Florida, you could say we’ve dodged a bullet so far. In those regions, Zika is likely to remain at a low level this winter. We expect Zika to be a real threat again as soon as weather warms in the spring and infected mosquitoes become active. No one knows how the 2017 Zika season will play out and who will be affected.

The threat of infection with the Zika virus forced many Americans to pay attention to mosquitoes in ways they never had before, and that has to be a good thing. But in many ways, it’s unfortunate that Zika garnered so much attention at the expense of other, arguably more important vector-transmitted diseases. In our Northeast region, the threat of Zika virus pales next to the very real threat of Lyme disease (see New Study Shows Expansion of Lyme Disease in NH and MA). Lyme has a tick vector, instead of a mosquito, but both vectors suck our blood and inject disease organisms in doing so. Both interfere with outdoor activities. Both can leave victims with debilitating long-term effects. The difference is that Lyme is here right now, in our midst.

Have We Decided to Ignore Lyme Disease?

Perhaps we’ve lived with Lyme disease for so long (since 1975) that we have become complacent. Lyme has simply become a fact of life. Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that over 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme in the U.S. each year. Many others go undiagnosed since Lyme disease is a great mimic of other conditions. While Lyme disease can make you pretty sick initially, it’s the chronic and often debilitating complications that can affect victims for many years after that are the real concern.

We’ve all been carefully watching for any northward migration of the two Aedes mosquitoes that can spread Zika virus. In contrast, the blacklegged tick, the vector of Lyme disease, has been quietly expanding its range so that it is now found in about half of the counties in the U.S., a 44% increase in the last 20 years. The vast majority of cases still occur in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern states.

Ticks Don’t Just “Go Away” in Winter

Even though we’re approaching colder weather, the ticks that transmit Lyme disease never really disappear (see Where Do Ticks Go in the Winter?). Blacklegged ticks have a nine month season when they are very active, the other three cold months only slow them down a bit. You can still be bitten by a tick and you can still get Lyme disease, so personal protection remains important year round. Hunters take note!

Deer are only one of the host animals for blacklegged ticks. Immature ticks feed on mice, voles, and other small animals such as chipmunks. If animals of any size visit your property, they could be carrying infected ticks (see What Do Mice in My Yard Have to Do With Lyme Disease?). If your lawn borders on woods, you are even more susceptible to ticks. There are things you can do, even in the dead of winter, to make your property less attractive to small animals and ticks (see Take Steps to Keep Ticks Out of Your Yard).

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