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Acorns And Mice Driving Unusual Lyme Disease Risks

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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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