Mary Beth Pfeiffer, author of “Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change,” is a leading investigative reporter on Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. She has been investigating Lyme disease since 2012 and the Poughkeepsie Journal has published more than 12 installments on the subject.
In her recent “TEDx Talk,” she discusses the expansion of ticks throughout the world, and the threat this poses to human health. Click below to watch and scroll down for full transcript of this thought-provoking talk.
To learn more about Mary Beth’s work and to contact her, please see her website.
‘This is a war. And these tiny armored tanks are winning.’
“A while back, Bill Gates was giving a talk on malaria. The mosquito-borne disease kills a half million people a year. “There’s no reason,” he said, “only poor people should have the experience.” Then, Gates unscrewed a jar. And out flew a tiny cloud of mosquitoes.
People shifted in their seats.
Now, ticks cannot fly. They crawl maybe three feet in their entire lives. What they are good at is climbing. Up a weed or a bit of brush. Where they wait, like this, in hopes a warm-blooded animal may pass by. That’s it. Pretty scary stuff, huh?
So, I have a jar here. It has lots of ticks. Ticks with a kind of body armor that, unlike mosquitoes, makes them impossible to squish. I’ve tried.
“Tiny armored tanks.” That’s how one scientist described them to me.
So what do you think? Shall I set my ticks free?
Statistically, a quarter to a half of these ticks carry at least one nasty pathogen. Some have two or three.
Chiefly, ticks infect 300,000 Americans a year with Lyme disease. Another up and coming tick disease is a lot like malaria… and has slipped into the blood supply.
Nonetheless, ticks get very little respect.
Remember the uproar over the Zika virus a couple of years ago? It’s from mosquitoes. It can cause birth defects. It landed in Florida. Congress put up a billion dollars to fight it.
Ticks have not impressed Congress in this way. Ever.
So I’m an investigative reporter.
I began to look into Lyme disease six years ago.
I learned about people who took a long time to recover. And some who never did.
These folks know the power of a tick that at its most dangerous is about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen.
There’s one tick in my jar that I’m calling Harriet.
Harriet has a lovely red crescent on her back. And she is one formidable lady.
For one thing, Harriet can sense your breath from 50 feet away.
That’s when, from her perch on a weed, her tiny legs begin waving…wildly. Think a New Yorker on a lamppost hailing a cab…with two or three pairs of arms.
Harriet’s goal is to snag a bit of passing fur or, in our case, a leg, a sock, a child’s shorts.
If she’s lucky and climbs aboard, Harriet is happy.
She lives about two years but feeds only three times. As a Baby. As a Juvenile. As an Adult.
This is a special day for Harriet.
First, she will find a soft spot. Behind the knee. In the armpit. At the hairline.
Then Harriet gets serious. She uses two jagged spears on each side of her mouth to saw away at your skin. One spear in, one out… until, VOILA, epidermis is breached.
Harriet is ready to dine. On you.
This is where Harriet shows she can outcompete anything that flies.
Harriet does all that poking and piercing without you ever knowing she was there. How?
She spits on you. She numbs you with something in her saliva that is a lot like Novocain. You don’t feel a thing.
There is actually a paper in the literature entitled “Spit-acular Saliva.” Turns out scientists do have a sense of humor.
So tick spit is a thing. Someday, pharmaceuticals may be modeled after Harriet’s saliva.
It numbs you but it also stops your blood from clotting, which might otherwise clog up Harriet’s meal.
Something else in tick spit tricks your immune system. It thinks, it’s perfectly natural to have a tick attached. No need to fight off this invader!
Finally, tick saliva produces a kind of cement. It keeps Harriet snugly attached long enough for her to change from a hard-bodied speck to something like an overcooked pea.
By the way, she’s easy to squish then but, please, DON’T. You might just squirt a belly full of bugs from Harriet’s gut into you. That’s called tick removal 101. Use fine-tipped tweezers close to the skin.
So I call Lyme disease: The first epidemic of climate change.
Let me explain. About 15 million years ago, a tick was caught in sap from a prehistoric tree.
A scientist found that specimen in amber, Jurassic style, and put it under a microscope.
It lit up with lots of coiled bacteria. These are the earliest evidence of Lyme disease.
A warmer world did not create this bug. Rather, warming, along with lots of other changes in our world, has set the table for it.
It is a very good time to be a tick on planet earth.
So here’s the globe.
You have Lyme disease ticks in half of US counties, which is twice as many as two decades ago. The ticks are quickly spreading north into Canada.
Across the Atlantic, it sweeps across Europe — from Spain to Sweden, Scotland to Poland.
Ticks – and Lyme disease — have moved into Russia, China and Japan. An ER doctor in Australia told me he sees patients with 200 ticks on them all the time.
This is something like a Stephen King novel, a scientist said of my book. Except, it’s true.
So picture the top of the globe like a maypole with streamers running through continents and across seas.
Four traverse the Americas, from the Yukon in the north to Argentina in the south.
These streamers are aerial highways for birds.
The Atlantic flyway. The Mississippi flyway.
One flyway extends from Siberia to New Zealand.
A few years ago, a group of scientists captured 3,000 migrating birds at the southern doorstep of the US.
Around the eyes and in the feathers were ticks.
Doing the math, the scientists figured birds imported up to 39 million ticks a year. On one American flyway. On another: 25 million ticks fly the friendly skies into Finland every year.
Now, this really isn’t a new trend. Ticks have hitched rides on birds for thousands of years.
But here’s the thing. In the past, an imported tick generally didn’t live long at the far reaches of its journey.
But today, when a migrating bird picks Harriet up in Mexico or Virginia and drops her, say, in Nova Scotia, she is a Pilgrim in a welcoming world.
She disembarks in a country where temperatures rose three degrees in the 20th century.
Where winters are shorter and the sea rose by nearly a foot.
Here in Long Island, a new tick from the steamy south, called the lone star, is moving in. It brings a different set of problems from Harriet.
And it also loves the weather. But this isn’t only about a warmer world. It’s about a perfect storm.
Whether she lands in New York, New Hampshire or Nova Scotia, Harriet will find more deer, which have no natural predators and lots of gardens and grass.
A deer is where Harriet meets her mate and rides blissfully off into the sunset.
Then, when Harriet’s 2,000 babies hatch, they will find something else: lots of fat, happy mice.
They too thrive in a world of development and scattered woodlands.
Foxes that might’ve eaten those mice aren’t so common anymore.
Here’s the clincher. Harriet’s babies will get more than a full meal from those mice.
They will drink in the bug that causes Lyme disease.
And so the cycle begins.
The pieces are in place for an epidemic.
All a human being need do is brush against a tall bit of grass. The climate, the bird, the deer, the mouse, the tick and the bacterium have done the rest.
In this scenario, human beings are at a distinct disadvantage. Because ticks and Lyme disease have been friends for a long time. They are like needle and thread. Batman and Robin. Alone, each merely exists. Together, they excel.
Consider this wonder of evolution:
Ticks that carry Lyme disease are healthier.
They have more body fat.
They live longer.
They lay more eggs that hatch more babies.
Harriet likes the Lyme disease bacterium, and vice versa, as much as she likes this new world into which she was dropped.
But evolution has also taught this duo: don’t kill the host that feeds you.
The Lyme bug circulates from tick to mouse and back again without ever hurting the mouse.
But we are not like the mouse. We are newcomers on the menu. We get sick. With germs that sometimes disable, sometimes even kill. They rob children of childhood.
How do these things that cannot even fly do so much damage? There are many of them. Billions. They are eons ahead of us.
Wear clothing that is treated to ward off ticks.
Stay away from tall weeds.
Check yourself – and your children – after going outside.
But, also, recognize that we had a hand in making this happen.
And know that we have done too little to stop it.
This is a war. And these tiny armored tanks are winning.”