Golfers at Risk for Lyme Disease Near the Green

By Alan Mozes

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - On a clear spring day, thousands of Americans can be found swinging their clubs on the roughly 60,000 golf courses throughout the US.

But at least one researcher warns that golfers who wander off the course and into the nearby woods may put themselves at risk for Lyme disease.

``Basically, there is no risk while people are playing golf on the green; however, the edge of the woods that surround the golf course is where they are at risk for tick-transmitted diseases,'' said Dr. Elyes Zhioua, the study's author.

Lyme disease, a bacterial infection carried by deer ticks, can cause rash and flu-like symptoms. Over time, the infection can lead to more serious problems including arthritis, brain swelling and heart abnormalities. About 15,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported in the US each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites).

Zhioua, director of the Tick Research Lab at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, surveyed a number of golfing ranges around Rhode Island to evaluate the degree of localized deer tick infestation. Rhode Island is one of 47 states in which incidents of Lyme disease have been documented. To date, the majority of cases have occurred in northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

The survey revealed that while deer ticks were not present on open greenways, they were in plentiful supply on the perimeters of all the courses. Zhioua also found that one half to three quarters of ticks were infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

``The wooded area at the edge of most golf courses is the natural habitat of deer ticks,'' Zhioua said in a prepared statement. ``And most players' shots occasionally end up there.''

He said that insecticide alone would not solve the infestation problem and so the best way to avoid Lyme disease is through prevention. Zhioua recommended that golf course owners publicize the risk of straying from the green, noting that some owners may resist advertising because it could scare off customers.

In an interview with Reuters Health, Zhioua expressed hope that word of mouth would increase awareness of the dangers lurking in the surrounding woods.

``Players should be careful if they go in the woods to get their ball,'' Zhioua said in an interview. ``And in summertime people don't play with long pants, so they have to check themselves. They simply have to be aware that the woods surrounding the golf course are a risky area.''

Ticks can infect a person with Lyme disease through a single bite, Zhioua explained. He said that other difficult-to-diagnose illnesses can be transmitted the same way, as deer ticks have been found to carry a number of different bacteria that can cause flu-like illnesses in humans.