Lyme disease will continue its upward trend in Maine

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Mainers are urged to take precautions as the CDC predicts Lyme disease will continue its upward trend.

The tick population in southern Maine appears to be high this year, prompting a state health official to caution people who spend time outside to be diligent about protecting themselves against Lyme disease.

Researchers who study ticks in Maine say it is too soon to judge if the population actually is shaping up to be larger than last year, but anecdotal evidence suggests the number of ticks attaching themselves to humans and animals is higher. The presence of more ticks puts more Mainers at risk of contracting Lyme or other vector-borne diseases.

Chuck Lubelcyzk, an ecologist with the Maine Medical Research Institute, said there seems to be an abundant number of ticks in Maine this year, but it is still too early to judge if they’ll top last year’s numbers.

“We don’t yet have a handle on how bad it will be,” Lubelcyzk said. “We are noticing the long winter gave a good boost in the arm to ticks that survived to spring.”

The increased presence of ticks in Maine corresponds to a rise in recent years in the number of probable and confirmed cases of Lyme disease.

Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is cautioning Mainers to be vigilant for ticks when they go outside and to request testing if they’re showing symptoms of Lyme disease.

“We know the (tick) population continues to increase and move up toward Bangor,” Pinette said. “We know that Lyme disease is alive and present here. It’s been found in every county and it’s increasing.”

Areas south of Bangor – especially along the coast – have the highest rate of infected ticks in the state.

The national rate for Lyme disease infection in 2012 was 10.6 cases per 100,000 people. In Maine, the rate was 83.7 cases per 100,000 people. Lyme has been recorded in 13 states, primarily in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Last year there were a record 1,376 cases of Lyme disease reported in Maine, up from 1,111 in 2012, according to the CDC. This year there have been 133 cases reported to the CDC, compared with 264 during the same time period in 2013. Pinette said the lower number in the first five months of 2014 does not mean the number of Lyme cases will decline this year. She expects the number to be higher.

Lyme disease cases in Maine are underreported, she said, often because people don’t see a rash or don’t recognize the symptoms.

“Mainers are really strong Yankee people,” she said. “It may seem normal to be working hard and feeling fatigued or have aches in their joints.”

Those infected with Lyme disease often develop a fever, headache and fatigue, and sometimes a telltale rash that looks like a bull’s-eye centered on the tick bite. Lyme disease is most common in school-age children, middle-age adults and adults over the age of 65. Most infections occur during the summer.

Most people recover with antibiotics, although some symptoms can persist. If left untreated, the infection can cause arthritis or spread to the heart and nervous system.

People who spend a lot of time outdoors are being extra vigilant about ticks this year.

“I just pulled one off today,” Chris Franklin, executive director of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, said Friday. “The surprising thing is the variety of places you’ll find them this year. I’m picking them up in the woods and in fields.”

Franklin said ticks are especially hard to spot right now because they’re the size of a poppy seed, so his first stop after coming in from outside is in the laundry room to change clothes. He said many people seem to have made tick checks part of their daily routine.

Scott Richardson, communications director at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, said he doesn’t worry too much about ticks, but he tries to be cautious when he’s outside. He heeds expert advice to wear light-colored clothing, tuck pants into socks and thoroughly check for ticks every day.

Before walks at the reserve in Wells, staff members advise visitors to do tick checks and walk toward the center of trails to avoid brushing against vegetation on which ticks rest. The reserve has trimmed back brush along its trail system in an attempt to reduce the tick population there, Richardson said.

Joe Anderson, stewardship director for the York Land Trust, said it seems there are more ticks out than normal, at least judging by the numbers he finds on his clothing after being outside.

“It seems like ‘bang,’ all of a sudden instead of seeing one or two, you’re seeing five or seven,” he said. “They’re out and heavy.”

According to the CDC, people bitten by a tick should remove the tick properly, ideally using tweezers or a tick spoon; identify the tick and engorgement level, or length of time the tick was attached; clean the area around the bite; and watch for signs and symptoms for 30 days.

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