Ticks, Lyme Disease Remain a Concern in Winter

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — When does tick season start? According to local tick expert Thomas Mather, it never ends. There might be snow on the ground and single-digit temperatures, but tick season is always just a few mild days away, Mather explained during a Jan. 22 presentation about ticks and Lyme disease at the Statehouse.

In fact, after a recent warm spell in early January Mather found dozens of ticks at one of his test sites.

If you look at one of his maps of the country, Rhode Island is at the heart of deer tick density, and it’s getting worse, he said. Last year was a record year for deer ticks in Rhode Island, and 2012 set the previous record. “The problem is there’s more ticks in more places than ever before,” Mather said.

The causes of this tick population outbreak and spread of Lyme disease are not fully known, but a combination of climate, deer population growth and development of rural land are the prime suspects, according to James McDonald, chief administrative officer at the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH).

Mather, who runs the Tick Encounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island, McDonald and the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) held the workshop to publicize information about deer ticks and Lyme disease, as well as explain efforts to cull deer populations.

Older ticks prefer to live on deer. Deer, therefore, tend to be the most common host for breeding deer ticks, especially when ticks are at their highest stage of transmitting Lyme disease.

The state has some 15,000 deer. Last year, Block Island expanded deer hunting season in order to reduce habitat damage and the spread of Lyme disease. Block Island has experienced some of the most dramatic deer population growth and has about 100 deer per square mile. Jamestown also is considering expanded hunting to reduce deer.

More research is needed to know the benefits of culling deer to control Lyme disease, said Janet Coit, director of DEM, the agency that oversees hunting in the state.

“We know that if you reduce the population of deer, you’ll reduce the population of ticks,” Coit said. “But we really don’t know for sure about the relationship for reducing the deer populations and reducing the incidence of disease.”

Mice, birds and chipmunks also are hosts for deer ticks.

According to the DOH, about 800 new cases are reported annually. However, for every known case there are nine unidentified cases. The number of new cases across the country has been stable in recent years, McDonald said, while the problem has intensified in areas where the deer population has grown.

Lyme disease can be transmitted within 24 to 36 hour after a bite from an infected tick. Symptoms can occur up to six weeks after a tick bite. Symptoms include arthritis in large joints like shoulders and knees, severe headaches, memory loss, sleep disturbance, fatigue, depression and heart problems.

For most people, Lyme disease is easily diagnosed and treated within weeks through antibiotics. But, 10 percent to 20 percent of people may have symptoms lasting months or years.

There is no vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine Lymerix in 1998. According to medical reports, the drug required several follow-ups as well as annual doses, while the efficacy measured 80 percent. Controversy created by side effects resulted in low sales and the drugmaker withdrew Lymerix from the market in 2001. Newer vaccines are being researched.

The disease is perhaps hundreds of years old, but the first cluster of the disease was identified in Lyme, Conn., in 1977. Cases have been concentrated in the Northeast ever since.

All of the hearing's speakers urged lawmakers to pursue a regional approach to addressing Lyme disease. Both Mather and McDonald also suggested simple prevention steps, such as regular body inspections and wearing clothing treated with tick repellent.

“But quite frankly it’s the easy things we’re not very good at doing,” McDonald said.

Both recommend following prevention tips on the Tick Encounter website.