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Acorns And Mice Driving Unusual Lyme Disease Risks

The northeastern United States faces potentially “the worst year yet” for Lyme disease and other tickborne infections because of the periodic abundance of a little-noticed component of the disease’s complex ecology: acorns.

Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, explained during a presentation Tuesday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases (ICEID) that a heavy crop of acorns in 2010 — a phenomenon known as a “mast year” — fueled a 2011 population bloom in white-footed mice, which stash acorns for winter food and begin breeding earlier in years when they are well-fed. That surge intersected with the two-year lifecycle of the ticks that transmit Lyme disease, for which mice are the key host, and this summer could produce a bumper crop of infected tick nymphs looking to bite large mammals — including humans.

“We’re already working with health departments” in Lyme-endemic areas to help craft messages to the public about the potential risk, Ostfeld said during his talk.

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