An Army Of Deer Ticks Carrying Lyme Disease Is Advancing And Here’s Why It Will Only Get Worse
This story has initially been publicly presented by The Center for Public Integrity and is co-published with Mother Jones. It has been edited by TheEssentialTools for clarity.
Maine’s ticks invasion came early this year.
In recent hotbeds of tick activity — from Scarborough to Belfast and Brewer — people say they spotted the eight-legged arachnid before spring. They noticed the ticks — which look like moving poppy seeds — encroaching on roads, beaches, playgrounds, cemeteries, and library floors.
As is in a horror movie, they saw them clinging to dogs, birds, and squirrels.
By May, terrorized neighbors saw the ticks crawling on other people’s legs, backs, and necks. Now, in midsummer, daily encounters seem almost impossible to avoid.
Maine is home to 15 tick species but and especially one public-health menace: the black-legged tick — called the “deer” tick — a carrier of Lyme and other debilitating diseases.
For more than 30 years, an army of deer ticks has advanced from the state’s southwest corner some 350 miles to the Canadian border. It is bringing with it the Lyme Disease.
“It’s horrifying,” says Dora Mills, director of the Center for Excellence in Health Innovation at the University of New England in Portland. Mills, 58, says she never saw deer ticks in her native state until 2000.
The ticks brought a surge of Lyme disease in Maine over two decades, boosting reported cases from 71 in 2000 to 1,487 in 2016 — a 20-fold increase, the latest federal data show. Today, Maine leads the nation in Lyme incidence, topping hot spots like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
Deer-tick illnesses such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis are following a similar trajectory.
Those infections look like a parasitic disease similar to malaria… In the USA!!!
In Maine, the explosion of disease is in line with a warming climate where, over the past three decades, summers generally have grown hotter and longer and winters milder and shorter.
Today, Maine leads the nation in Lyme incidence, but other States are pushing up trying to get on the top spot: Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
It’s one strand in an ominous tapestry: Across the United States, tick- and mosquito-borne diseases, some potentially lethal, are emerging in places and volumes not previously seen.
Climate change almost certainly is to blame, according to a 2018 report by 13 federal agencies that warned of intensifying heat, storms, air pollution, and infectious diseases. Last year, a coalition of 24 academic and government groups tried to track climate-related health hazards worldwide. It found them “far worse than previously understood,” jeopardizing half a century of public-health gains.
Yet, in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed legislation aimed at limiting the damage, former government officials say.
The tripling of vector disease cases
Climate’s role in intensifying diseases carried by “vectors” — organisms transmitting pathogens and parasites — isn’t as obvious as in heat-related conditions or pollen allergies. But it poses a grave threat.
Of all infectious diseases, those caused by bites from ticks, mosquitoes and other cold-blooded insects are most climate-sensitive, scientists say. Even slight shifts in temperatures can alter their distribution patterns.
In May, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a tripling of the number of disease cases resulting from mosquito, tick and flea bites nationally over 13 years — from 27,388 cases in 2004 to 96,075 in 2016.
Cases of tick-related illnesses doubled in this period, accounting for 77 percent of all vector-borne diseases.
CDC officials attributed this spike partly to rising temperatures.
Discord within the health community has stymied action.
“Like most health departments, we are underfunded, and our list of responsibilities grows each year,” wrote one investigator from Arizona.
This reality is striking in Maine, among 16 states and two cities receiving a federal grant meant to bolster health departments’ responses to climate-related risks. Under the program — known as Building Resilience Against Climate Effects, or BRACE — federal CDC employees help their state and local counterparts use climate data and modeling research to identify health hazards and create prevention strategies. National leaders have praised the Maine CDC’s BRACE work, which includes Lyme disease.
Sources close to the agency say the LePage administration is concerned about tick-related illnesses.
The ticks, meanwhile, continue their northerly creep. In Penobscot County — where the Lyme incidence rate is eight times what it was in 2010 — the surge has unnerved residents. Regina Leonard, 39, a lifelong Mainer who lives seven miles north of Bangor says the deer tick seems “rampant.”
In 2016, her son Cooper, then 7, tested positive for Lyme disease after developing what she now identifies as an expanding or “disseminated” rash, a classic symptom. Red blotches appeared on his cheeks, as if he were sunburned. The blotches coincided with other ailments — malaise, nausea. Weeks later, they circled his eyes. The ring-shaped rash spread from his face to his back, stomach, and wrists.
Leonard says Cooper could barely walk during his 21-day regimen of antibiotics. His fingers curled under his hands. He stuttered. The thought of being bitten by another tick terrifies him to this day.
“At this rate,” Leonard says, “we’re all going to end up with Lyme.”
A huge epidemic.
The spread of Lyme disease has followed that of deer ticks. The incidence of Lyme has more than doubled over the past two decades. In 2016, federal health officials reported 36,429 new cases.
Lyme disease has reached far beyond endemic areas in the Northeast to points west, south and north.
The official count, driven by laboratory tests, underplays the public-health problem, experts say. In some states, Lyme has become so prevalent that health departments no longer require blood tests to confirm early diagnosis. The testing process — which measures an immune response against the Lyme-causing bacteria — has limitations as well. It misses patients who don’t have such a reaction. Those who show symptoms associated with a later stage — neurological issues, arthritis — can face inaccurate results.
The CDC estimates cases might be 10 times higher than reported nationally.
Dr. Saul Hymes heads a pediatric tick-borne disease center at Stony Brook University on Long Island, a Lyme epicenter since the disease’s discovery in 1975. He’s noticed a change: Patients file into his office as early as March and as late as November. Often, they appear in winter. Deer-tick samples collected from 2006 to 2011 at the university’s Lyme lab show a jump in tick activity in December and January.
States where Lyme hardly existed 20 years ago are experiencing dramatic increases.
In Minnesota, deer ticks and the diseases they cause appeared in a few southeastern counties in the 1990s. But the tick has spread northward, bringing disease-causing bacteria with it.
According to David Neitzel the Minnesota Department of Health’s vector-borne disease unit “In newly infested areas, we haven’t been able to find any clean ticks. They’re all infected.”
Minnesota ranks among the nation’s top five states for Lyme cases; it places even higher in incidence of anaplasmosis and babesiosis.
A similar transformation is underway in Maine, where the 2017 count of 1,769 Lyme cases represented a 19-percent increase over the previous year. Anaplasmosis cases soared 78 percent during that period, babesiosis 42 percent.
“It’s quite a remarkable change in a relatively short period,” says Dr. Robert Smith, director of infectious diseases at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Researchers at the hospital’s vector-borne disease laboratory have tracked the deer tick’s march across all 16 of Maine’s counties since 1988. Through testing, they’ve identified five of the seven pathogens carried by deer ticks. That’s five new maladies, some life-threatening.
Betsy Garrold, 63, lives on 50 acres amid dairy farms in Knox, a rustic town of 900 in Waldo County, where the Lyme incidence rate is three times the state average. A retired nurse midwife, Garrold says she long viewed the disease as many in the health profession would: mostly benign when treated with antibiotics. In 2013, she tested positive for Lyme after a red, brick-shaped rash covered her stomach and legs. She lost her ability to read and write and struggled to form a simple sentence.
“It was the worst experience of my life,” says Garrold, who previously had weathered bouts of tropical intestinal diseases.
Lisa Jordan, a patient advocate who lives in Brewer, just southeast of Bangor, says she’s already inundated with phone calls from people stricken by Lyme. On her cul-de-sac, she counts 15 out of 20 households touched by the disease. Three of her family members, herself included, are among them. “It’s a huge epidemic,” she says.
Disease emergency in Canada
Unlike mosquitoes, which live for a season and fly everywhere, deer ticks have a two-year life cycle and rely on animals for transport. That makes their hosts key drivers of disease. Young ticks feed on mice, squirrels, and birds, yet adults need deer — some suggest 12 per square mile—to sustain a population.
Rebecca Eisen, a federal CDC biologist who has studied climate’s influence on Lyme, notes that deer ticks dominated the East Coast until the 1800s, when forests gave way to fields. The transition nearly wiped out the tick, which thrives in the leaf litter of oaks and maples. The spread of the deer tick since federal Lyme data collection began in the 1990s can be traced in part to a decline in agriculture that has brought back forests while suburbia has sprawled to the woods’ edges, creating the perfect habitat for tick hosts.
Eisen suspects this changing land-use pattern is behind Lyme’s spread in mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania, where the incidence rate has more than tripled since 2010. “It hasn’t gotten much warmer there,” she says.
Ben Beard, deputy director of the federal CDC’s climate and health program, says warming is the prime culprit in Lyme’s movement north. The CDC’s research suggests the deer tick, sensitive to temperature and humidity, is moving farther into arctic latitudes as warm months grow hotter and longer. Rising temperatures affect tick activity, pushing the Lyme season beyond its summer onset.
Canada epitomizes these changes. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Nicholas Ogden, a senior scientist at the country’s Public Health Agency, has watched the tick population in Canada spread from two isolated pockets near the north shore of Lake Erie into Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario, the front lines of what he calls “a vector-borne disease emergency.”
Scientists say ticks can use snow as a blanket to survive cold temperatures, but long winters will limit the deer tick, preventing it from feeding on hosts and developing into adults. In the 2000s, Ogden and colleagues calculated a threshold temperature at which it could withstand Canada’s winter. They surmised that every day above freezing — measured in “degree days,” a tally of cumulative heat — would speed up its life cycle, allowing it to reproduce and survive. They mapped their theory: As temperatures rose, deer ticks moved in.
The Canadian health agency reports a seven-fold spike in Lyme cases since 2009.
The US Environmental Protection Agency concluded as much in 2014, one of two vector infections to receive the distinction. In its description, the EPA singles out the caseloads of four northern states, including Maine, where Lyme has become most common.
Maine researchers have found a strong correlation between tick activity and milder winters. According to their projections, warming in Maine’s six northernmost counties — which collectively could gain up to 650 more days above freezing each year by 2050 — will make them just as hospitable to deer ticks as the rest of the state.
Maine’s governor nixes research
Research like this is crucial, experts say. Yet the federal government has failed to prioritize it. NIH spending has gone up in the past two fiscal years, to an average of $193 million annually. But that’s still less than the $200 million Ebi says health officials need annually to create programs that will protect Americans. And NIH spent 38 times as much on cancer research during the two-year period.
‘Trying to plug holes in the dam.’
Today, the Maine CDC’s climate and health program amount to little more than a half-dozen initiatives on ticks and tick-borne diseases. Health officials have developed voluntary school curricula and online campaigns targeting the elderly, for instance. They’ve launched training videos for school nurses and librarians.
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The department’s “main prevention message is encouraging Maine residents and visitors to use personal protective measures to prevent tick exposures,” it said in a 2018 report.
That report, filed by the Maine CDC with state legislators, hints at the department’s myopic focus on the accelerating public-health problem. Its vector-borne disease workgroup, consisting of scientists, pest-control operators, and patient advocates, has extensive knowledge on ticks and tick-borne diseases, yet has no mandate to draft a statewide response plan, members say. Its published materials make no mention of Lyme’s connection to climate change.
Sources close to the Maine CDC say the prevention work is the best it can do with limited resources. At $215,000 a year, the BRACE grant — which totals $1.1 million over five years — isn’t enough to cover a 38,385-square-mile state with 1.3 million residents, they say. No state money is directed toward the surge in tick-related illnesses.
LePage’s office cites the governor’s leadership in building an $8 million research facility at the University of Maine, which opened last month. The laboratory—the product of a ballot initiative in 2014 — houses the university’s tick-identification program. Director Griffin Dill considers it a major upgrade from the converted office in which he logged tick samples for five years. It will enable him to expand tick surveillance and test ticks for pathogens. Still, he’s candid about the bigger picture.
“We’re still so inundated with tick-borne disease,” Dill says. “We’re trying to plug holes in the dam.”
Already, another threat is looming.
Scientists consider the Lone Star tick a better signal for the rise in Lyme Disease. The ticks have long thrived in southern states like Texas and Florida but are advancing northward.
In Maine, tick ecologists have logged samples of the Lone Star species since 2013. Dill has surveyed fields and yards in search of settled populations, dragging what looks like a white flag on a stick over brush. He says the tick isn’t surviving Maine’s winters — yet.
It may be bringing new and unusual diseases here nevertheless. Patty O’Brien Carrier suffered what she describes as a bizarre reaction — itchy hives, a reddened face, a swollen throat — twice before learning that she has Alpha Gal Syndrome, a rare allergy to meat. In February, lab tests identified its source: a Lone Star tick bite. A “ferocious gardener” from Harpswell, 37 miles northeast of Portland, O’Brien, 71, believes she was bitten in her yard. She spends her time in the dirt surrounded by roses, daisies, and other perennials. She notices more ticks in her garden, she says, much like she notices the ground thawing earlier each spring.
In November, O’Brien pulled a bloated tick from her neck. It was as large as a sesame seed, concave-shaped and bore a white dot on its back—just like the Lone Star. “Its face was right in my neck, and its legs were squirming,” she says. “It was quite disgusting.”
Now O’Brien performs the same ritual every time she goes outside: She applies tick repellant on her clothes and skin.
She fashions elastic around her pants, and pulls her knee socks up. She adds boots, gloves, and a hat.
“It’s like a war zone out there,” O’Brien says, “and I cannot be bitten by another tick.”