Elias focuses on factors affecting spread of deer ticks, diseases

With the arrival of spring, many Mainers head outside to hike, mow lawns, picnic, and garden. But working and playing outdoors can bring people in contact with deer ticks and tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease.

“Maine in 2014 had the highest incidence of Lyme disease of all the states in the country,” says Susan Elias, a doctoral student at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

Midcoast Maine and islands were hardest hit, she says, adding, “We’ve got to get this figured out.”

To help do that, Elias is studying deer ticks and their spread across Maine. She uses data sets and software that simultaneously take into account numerous variables and indicate the relative importance of each.

In addition to milder winters and sufficient moisture during summers, other factors that affect the spread of ticks and the diseases they carry include deforestation/reforestation, landscaping practices and deer management.

“If we just have a better understanding of all the factors taken together, I think we could do a better job of helping people control deer ticks and prevent disease,” she says.

That’s good news for Mainers. In the state, deer ticks carry five pathogens known to cause disease in humans, including Lyme disease, says Elias.

Lyme disease is a potentially long-term debilitating condition that can include facial-muscle paralysis, pain and weakness in the arms and legs, headaches, poor memory, rapid heartbeat, fever, chills and fatigue.

Each year since 2011 in Maine, there have been more than 1,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease. In 2015, 1,171 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease were reported and, according to a January 2016 Maine Centers of Disease Control report to the Legislature, ages of people diagnosed ranged from age 1 to 95.

Elias’ modeling results are expected to inform decisions about adaptations and strategies, including whether to invest in tick vaccines, as well as removal of invasive plants and deer management.

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month in Maine and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the “No Ticks 4 ME” prevention techniques: Using an EPA-approved repellent; wearing protective clothing; doing daily tick checks; and being cautious in tick-infested areas. Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics; the CDC says it’s easiest to treat in the early stages of illness.

People who find ticks on themselves or pets may submit them to University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick Identification Lab for testing. For more information about Elias, visit extension.umaine.edu/maineclimatenews/researchhighlights.