A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Landscape Professionals showed that 75% of U.S. adults feel it’s important to spend time outside in their yards. Many of us love the idea of getting some fresh air and reconnecting with the beauty of nature as part of our fitness routine or in our spare time. But whether your utilize your lawn for a workout or enjoy spending time in the nearby out-of-doors with your family, there are numerous backyard-borne diseases and risks to be aware of.
Chief among these risks are diseases carried and transferred by pets, rodents, mosquitoes, and ticks. Even very limited contact with these animals — including picking up rodent droppings or being bitten by a single tick or mosquito — can have dastardly consequences. One California woman died after disposing of rat droppings and was later found to be infected with arenavirus. In addition, the number of probable Lyme disease cases in 2015 climbed to over 35,000 in the United States.
To help people identify the kinds of diseases that are emerging in their area, EcoHealth Alliance recently published an interactive map that allows users to focus on a specific region or type of outbreak. The map shows just how common and widespread these health hazards are.
But even there’s no risk of an outbreak, you still need to be safe when dealing with Mother Nature. Camping is an immensely popular activity, as nearly 40.1 million Americans over the age of six went camping in 2013. Whether you head up to the mountains or put up a tent in your backyard, ticks are quickly becoming a big health concern for those who go camping. Ticks can be difficult to detect and Lyme disease can be even more difficult to diagnose.
Adding to the complication is that regions that formerly had no substantial tick populations are now discovering that’s no longer the case. In fact, a recent report discovered that Lyme-spreading ticks can now be found in approximately half of U.S. counties.
In particular, the Northeast region of the U.S. has seen the biggest uptick (pun intended, with apologies) in these populations. Researchers for the CDC report that the presence of the backlegged tick can now be found in 45% of U.S. counties; when such a report was last conducted in 1998, these same ticks were found in only 30% of counties. The other known transmitter of Lyme, the western backlegged tick, saw a small increase in its population spread, as it’s now present in 3.6% of American counties (compared to 3.4% in 1998).
Indeed, the total number of emerging diseases worldwide has quadrupled over the past 60 years; since 1980, the number of outbreaks has tripled. In the last two decades, more than a dozen new pathogens and viruses have appeared in North America alone. And while identification methods have improved over the years, which account for an overall increase in diseases, that doesn’t explain the phenomenon of old diseases cropping up or new diseases emerging in different regions.
While scientists aren’t always certain as to why these old diseases are showing up again or how they spread — a noted resurgence in leprosy is a prime example — there are ways you can protect yourself from certain backyard health risks.
You should avoid hiking, camping, or taking outdoor trips if you’re feeling ill, as a weakened immune system can make you vulnerable to other conditions. Use tick and mosquito repellents and wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into socks. Light-colored clothing may make ticks easier to spot, but be sure to conduct thorough body checks immediately after returning from outdoor activities. Make sure you are up-to-date on all vaccines and that you avoid eating meat that is raw or undercooked. Finally, report instances of sick or dead animals to your local wildlife agency and do not go near these animals yourself. If you suspect you have become infected with Lyme, West Nile, or any other virus, consult your doctor immediately.