The Associated Press

Harsh Winter Does Little To Ease Lyme Disease Woes

PORTLAND, Maine — The harsh winter did nothing to cull the nationwide tick population, and health officials are primed for a warm season that could see the number of Lyme disease cases rise.

In northern New England, the increase in cases of Lyme correlates with a growing population of deer ticks, which transmit the disease, state epidemiologist Stephen Sears said. In Maine and elsewhere, heavy snow acted as an insulating blanket that protected ticks from winter’s cold, state entomologist Charlene Donahue said.

An informational card about ticks distributed by the Maine Medical Center Research Institute is seen in the woods in Freeport, Maine, on Friday. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

An informational card about ticks distributed by the Maine Medical Center Research Institute is seen in the woods in Freeport, Maine, on Friday. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Nationwide, the number of cases of Lyme disease has held relatively steady over the past few years, and advocacy groups and federal agencies say they expect this spring, summer and fall to be active seasons for ticks and Lyme.

“Everybody’s picking them off themselves already,” Donahue said. “The cold weather didn’t make a difference.”

National tick populations depend on local climate conditions, said Darlene Foote, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A federal report released last week said climate change could bring warmer winters that make diseases like Lyme more prevalent.

State health officials are required by law to report cases of Lyme disease to government authorities. Ninety-five percent of the cases reported in 2012 were in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maine’s Lyme disease cases have grown steadily every year since 2010, when there were 752 cases. In 2013, there were 1,376 cases, the highest since the state started tracking the data. Vermont and New Hampshire have also seen steady climbs in Lyme cases in the last few years, state data show.

Marissa Freeman, 14, regularly checks her dogs for ticks before they’re allowed back in the house. (Ahmed Beenish/WBUR)

In this WBUR file photo, Marissa Freeman, then-14, checks her dogs for ticks before they’re allowed back in the house. (Ahmed Beenish/WBUR)

Nationally, cases have wavered between 30,000 and 37,500 cases every year since 2008, CDC data show. Massachusetts had the most cases in 2012, the most recent year for which nationwide data are available, CDC records say.

Maine’s deer ticks have grown in distribution, Sears said. A decade ago, the insects were localized in southern and coastal Maine and now have spread statewide, said Charles Lubelczyk, a field biologist with Maine Medical Center. Areas of central and eastern Maine have become particularly dense with ticks, he said.

One reason the tick population has grown is because the recent mild winters have allowed the deer population to thrive, Lubelczyk said. Adult deer ticks attach to deer to feed and mate.

As the deer and tick populations thrive, cases of Lyme disease grow, Lubelczyk said. Maine’s burgeoning tick population has also caused a rise in other tick-borne illnesses, including babessiosis, which infects red blood cells, and anaplasmosis, which infects white blood cells, Sears said.

“We don’t see anything to halt it,” Lubelczyk said.

Lyme disease symptoms include headache, fever and joint pain; in advanced stages, the disease can cause muscle weakness, numbness or pain in nerve areas, and heart problems. Lyme advocacy groups encourage people to frequently check for ticks after walking or hiking in wooded areas and to wear clothing that reduces skin exposure.

“We had a long, hard, cold winter that did nothing to reduce the tick population,” said Happy Dickey, founding director of MaineLyme, an advocacy group. “We need to incorporate prevention into our daily life.”

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  • Taiman

    Okay, this article contradicts itself. First, it says” … heavy snow acted as an insulating blanket that protected ticks from winter’s cold, state entomologist Charlene Donahue said.” Then it goes on to say “,…One reason the tick population has grown is because the recent mild winters have allowed the deer population to thrive, Lubelczyk said.” And A federal report released last week said climate change could bring warmer winters that make diseases like Lyme more prevalent. Yet, we’ve had one of the coldest winters in recent memory. So…..what the heck?

    • Geoffrey Feldman

      Did you miss the class in grammar school on averages? It would appear that most people who learned that are not Republicans.

      • Taiman

        Huh? Politics?! I’m not a republican. What does that got to do with the price of eggs in China?!

        • dust truck

          Anti-science climate deniers are typically Republican. Though he could be mistaken, you might just be a run-of-the-mill moron.

          • Taiman

            Did I say I was anti-science and a climate denier? Why the name calling? I wish you peace.

  • blisterpeanuts

    Long term, we are going to have to cull the deer population, which has grown exponentially since the 1940s. By removing this important vector, we can reduce the tick population rather quickly. Another possible tactic is to allow more foxes and other small predators that hunt field mice, which are the other major component of the tick life cycle.

    There was a Lyme vaccine produced in the 1990s, but it was taken off the market for human use after lawsuits over some apparent cases of infection. This vaccine should be revisited and perhaps can be made safe for human use (it can still be purchased for animal use). In New England, Lyme disease is becoming an epidemic., and an innocent walk in the woods or fields now is enough to put one at risk.

  • BruceBacka

    Where are the class action attorneys when we need them? I have 2 friends who lost their jobs and careers over complications from Lyme disease. My neighbor’s 5 year-old has been infected. Withholding the human vaccine for any reason other than “it doesn’t work,” which was never the complaint, should be illegal.

    • blisterpeanuts

      It was the lawyers who got the vaccine banned in the first place. After a few cases of Lyme infection which was blamed on the vaccine, there was a lawsuit, which caused the maker to pull the drug off the market in 1999. It’s still available for animals, because animal owners don’t sue, apparently.

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    That sounds logical. Interesting to see that data. It wouldve been nice to see that written like that in this article.

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