Shortage Of Red Foxes Fuels Lyme Disease Spread

By Amir Khan on June 19, 2012 11:20 AM EDT

Tick
Ticks, such as the one seen here, spread Lyme disease (Photo: Creative Commons)

Deer are frequently blamed the major culprit in the spread of Lyme disease, but according to new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, a different animal is to blame. Red foxes are disappearing and it's fueling the spread of Lyme disease, researchers said.

"Increases in Lyme disease in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States over the past three decades are frequently uncorrelated with deer abundance and instead coincide with a range-wide decline of a key small-mammal predator, the red fox, likely due to expansion of coyote populations," the study authors wrote.

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Researchers blame coyotes for the red fox decrease.

"A new top predator has entered the northeast and has strong impact on the ecosystem," Taal Levi, study author and a recent University of California, Santa Cruz,  Ph.D. graduate in environmental studies, said in a statement "We found that where there once was an abundance of red foxes there is now an abundance of coyotes."

Coyotes not only feast on red foxes, but also outcompete the fox for food. The red fox feeds on small mammals that, like deer, can carry the ticks that transmit Lyme disease. As the red fox population decreases, these small mammals increase heavily and contribute to the spread of Lyme.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted more than 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2010, the majority of which occurred in the northeastern U.S. The number of cases has increased in recent years, and the increase is independent of deer population levels.

Lyme disease, transmitted by black-legged ticks such as deer and bear ticks, is named for Lyme, Conn., the town where researchers first identified the disease in 1975. Lyme disease causes symptoms such as fever, headache and fatigue, but the classic sign is a "bull's-eye" rash that can occur between three and 30 days after the tick bite.

If symptoms are left untreated, the disease eventually causes neurological problems such as impaired muscle movement, inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and temporary facial paralysis.

The best prevention against Lyme disease is wearing protective clothing such as hats, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when walking through areas where the disease is prevalent, according to the Mayo Clinic. Wearing light colors makes ticks more visible when stuck to clothing.

Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics such as doxycycline and amoxicillin for 10 to 28 days. Lyme disease is usually curative with no lingering problems if treated early. If left untreated, the disease can be more stubborn, and may require an antibiotic that has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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