Correction to This Article
An information box with a March 25 Metro article about Lyme disease incorrectly said that dogs and cats cannot catch the disease. Dogs and cats can catch Lyme disease but cannot spread it to humans.

In Swelling Herds, A Growing Risk

Despite Fairfax County's efforts to control the deer population, the animals are an increasing presence, stripping branches bare and causing concern about Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks.
Despite Fairfax County's efforts to control the deer population, the animals are an increasing presence, stripping branches bare and causing concern about Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks. "The ticks are all over the county," a county health official said. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

A surge in reported cases of Lyme disease in Fairfax County has prompted an outcry from residents who say the lawns and woodlands surrounding their homes are overrun with infected ticks and the deer that carry them.

The exponential increase has also led county health officials to acknowledge that managing Fairfax's burgeoning deer population, which in some locations has numbered 400 per square mile, is no longer about nuisance control. It has become a serious public health issue that requires immediate attention, they say.

"Deer are the Metro system for the ticks" that carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, said Jorge R. Arias, who manages Fairfax's disease-carrying-insect program. "The ticks are all over the county. Wherever the deer can go, they will take the ticks with them."

Confirmed cases of Lyme disease, which is characterized by such varied symptoms as a bull's-eye-shaped rash, fever and fatigue, rose from three in 2004 to 82 in 2006, according to county data. Much of the increase is due to better reporting of a disease that is often quickly treated with antibiotics without being confirmed by blood tests. Still, public health officials say there is little doubt that case numbers are rising locally and nationally.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported cases rose from 19,800 in 2004 to 23,300 in 2005. Cases remain relatively low in Virginia -- 274 in 2005 compared with numbers in the thousands in such Northeastern states as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York.

But the increase in the Washington region is causing growing concern. Loudoun County claims half of all reported cases in Virginia. In Maryland, Montgomery County has seen confirmed cases grow fivefold since 2004, to 216.

And the very neighborhoods where deer are least welcome might be attracting the tick-carrying herds.

"Suburban lots with azaleas and rhododendrons is just like laying out a buffet for deer," Arias said. "We have created in suburbia what is essentially a perfect habitat for them." That, in turn, has created the perfect environment for transmitting the bacteria to humans, he said.

Country Club Manor in Centreville, a neighborhood of 20-year-old colonials on the edge of Cub Run Stream Valley Park, is riddled with hoof prints and deer droppings. The lower branches of dozens of shrubs are stripped bare. The lawn of Deer Park Elementary School is littered with torn grass tufts, a telltale sign of deer grazing. It is not unusual, neighbors say, to see a herd of 12 or more deer ambling down the road in broad daylight.

Nor is it unusual to pull a tick from one's body after gardening or playing in the yard with grandchildren, said resident Robert E. Jakubowski. It has become a way of life on Pamela Drive to tuck trousers into socks, apply insect repellent and perform a full-body check for the tiny nymphs, or baby ticks, that usually transmit the disease, he said.

Lyme disease has become a way of life, too. Jakubowski is one of 13 people within a one-block radius who say they have been treated for Lyme disease in the past two years. Jakubowski has been treated three times, he said. A few doors down, Sally L. Pekarik spent eight days in June in the intensive care unit at Reston Hospital Center after flulike symptoms prompted a Lyme disease diagnosis.

"The deer population has been out of control for years," Jakubowski said. "There have been minimal attempts to control it."

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