Lyme Disease Spreads as Humans Unravel the Web of Life?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

by April Moore

(Add in other diseases too, like Ebola, which has almost certainly spread due to deforestation and other human depradations on the environment. When (if ever) will we learn? - promoted by lowkell)

A few days ago I received a shocking email from Mike Tidwell, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN).  Subject line:  "Mike diagnosed with Lyme Disease."Oh no!  As a CCAN board member, I knew that Mike had been dealing with miserable, flu-like symptoms, joint pain, and muscle stiffness for sometime.  I felt terrible to learn this news.  Lyme Disease is a frightening illness that is hard to cure and sometimes leaves lasting damage.
I felt sad to think of this prospect for Mike.  In addition to being a great guy, Mike is an inspiration to climate activists in the mid-Atlantic region, where CCAN operates, and beyond.  One of the most dedicated climate warriors I know, Mike is also an effective organizer, writer, speaker, and fundraiser.  He is a mentor to a great many of us, and we need him to be healthy!
Mike noted in his email that he knows many people in the mid-Atlantic region who have had Lyme Disease.  I have to admit that I can say the same.  Just in the last year or so, the number of people I know with Lyme Disease has increased dramatically.
Yes, I know that a warming world means many diseases are on the move.   For example, tropical diseases, never before seen in the United States, are expected to move northward from the tropics into the American south. When I first heard about Lyme Disease 25 years ago, it was in places north of us, places like New England and northern Minnesota.
If climate change is pushing diseases toward the poles, then it would seem that the explanation for the increased incidence in our region must lie elsewhere.  So I wondered, what might the answer be?  Clearly, something is going on that is making the mid-Atlantic region hospitable to the tick that transmits the disease.

 Then I came upon a very interesting analysis by Cindy Parker, a physician and member of the CCAN board.  She maintains that the increased prevalence of the disease in its existing range [including the mid-Atlantic region] has more to do with land use policy than with climate change.   "The main carrier of Lyme Disease is the white-footed mouse," she says.  And while mice don't require much land, their predators do.  Ideally, these predators would keep the mouse population in check, Dr. Parker explains, and, consequently, also the ticks that feed on the white-footed mouse.
But as we humans expand into fields and forest, she explains, we destroy and fragment the habitat of many species.  In doing so, we are creating ideal situations for mice, but not their predators.  "A workable solution," Cindy Parker says,  "would be to increase habitat for predators, perhaps by connecting [existing habitat] fragments with 'wildlife corridors.'"  Connecting the fragments would help reconstitute the complex web of life.
Dr. Parker's diagnosis of what underlies the intensification of Lyme Disease in our region serves to underscore what happens when we humans thoughtlessly tamper with the web of life, with the interplay of multiple species and their habitats.  As we thoughtlessly 'seize' the habitats of other species for our own uses, we unwittingly set in motion changes that harm us humans-Mike Tidwell and so many others-as well as the species we are displacing.-by April Moore,