Maine sees increase in non-Lyme tick-bite illnesses

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Deer Tick on Finger

Doctors in Maine are reporting a record number of cases of anaplasmosis, a disease transmitted by tick bites. Lesser known than Lyme disease, it also can have serious health consequences if not diagnosed and treated promptly.

Anaplasmosis is caused by a bacteria carried by infected ticks, and it leads to a variety of symptoms in humans, including fever, headaches, muscle pain and nausea. Antibiotics can cure the disease, but if left undetected it can lead to serious health problems, especially among people with compromised immune systems.

Over the first seven months of 2014, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked 103 cases of anaplasmosis. That is already more than the 94 cases reported for all of 2013.

The jump is part of an overall increase in tick-borne diseases in Maine, which experts attribute to a continued increase in the deer tick population and growing public awareness of the disease.

Babesiosis, another tick-borne disease, is still relatively rare but is also trending upward. So far in 2014 there have been 20 reported cases, compared with 36 for all of 2013.

The numbers for Lyme disease, the most common tick-related illness, aren’t up, although that could change. Through July there were 552 reported cases, compared with 1,376 for 2013, but Lyme disease often takes several months to be officially classified, so this year’s number is expected to rise considerably.

“A lot of this is just more education and awareness,” said Maine CDC Director Sheila Pinette, who noted that people are more likely to be tested for tick-borne disease if they feel they have been exposed.

The CDC issued a statewide alert to health care providers, school nurses and others last week reminding them to be on the lookout for symptoms of these diseases.

The prevalence of Lyme disease has been steadily increasing in Maine over the past decade. In 2003, there were 175 cases. Last year’s total of 1,376 was the highest on record in the state.

Anaplasmosis and babesiosis are less common, but the increasing prevalence of those diseases mirrors the track Lyme disease has taken over the past five years.

In 2009, there were 15 cases of anaplasmosis and three cases of babesiosis on record. Since then, the numbers have risen steadily. This year is already a record year for anaplasmosis and, if the trend holds, the same will be true for babesiosis.

Many Mainers are aware of the dangers of Lyme disease, which can lead to meningitis, encephalitis and sometimes heart blockage.

Anaplasmosis, marked by fever, headaches and body aches, and babesiosis, marked by extreme fatigue, chills, sweating and anemia, are usually not as severe as Lyme disease. However, in cases where the infected person has a weakened immune system, the effects can be severe or even fatal.

“The good thing is that they can be treated with antibiotics,” said Jim Dill, pest management specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “That’s why, when we have a tick bite, we always tell the individual to contact their physician, especially if people find a tick that is attached and it has started to feed.”

Dr. Robert Smith, principal investigator for Maine Medical Center’s Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory, said he’s treated patients for all three diseases this summer. “There are clearly more cases of certain diseases over the last few years and I think awareness probably plays a big role,” he said.

Late-night talk show host David Letterman revealed to his audience in 2009 that he contracted anaplasmosis, probably from a tick bite, after sleeping in a tree house with his son.

Smith said people who are older or have immune deficiencies are more susceptible to serious symptoms or even hospitalization. On the other end of the spectrum, he said, there are people who never know they have a tick-related disease.

“There is certainly still under-reporting going on,” he said.

Deer ticks are smaller than the more common dog tick and are more prevalent in woodland or brush-covered areas. Every winter, many ticks die off, but during the past winter, heavy snowfall acted as a barrier that insulated the ticks and allowed them to survive bitter-cold temperatures.

Maine also has seen an increase in winter ticks, a separate species that is affecting the moose population. The state announced this summer that it would award 1,000 fewer moose permits to help protect the population.

Coastal Maine is considered part of the range of the Lone Star tick, a species distributed more widely in the Southern states that can transmit a disease known as ehrlichiosis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that five cases of the disease were reported in Maine this year, but state public health officials say they believe the cases may have originated out of state.

The Lone Star tick also has been blamed for transmitting a bacteria that causes an allergic reaction to red meat. However, the CDC does not address the allergy in its public health data and website entry on the tick.

The increase in Maine’s tick population and the corresponding spike in related diseases underscore the need for a dedicated laboratory, Dill said. One would be created if Question 2 on the November ballot passes.

Voters will be asked to support or reject an $8 million bond that would pay to build an animal and plant disease and insect control laboratory at the University of Maine for monitoring health threats related to mosquitoes, bedbugs and ticks.

“Right now, all we can do is identify the tick. We can’t really test the tick to see what it’s carrying,” Dill said. “A new facility would allow us to do testing right here in-state, which would have a big impact on public health.”

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