Protecting Our Families from Lyme Disease

Fall is a beautiful time of year in Maine, the season for hiking, hunting, and leaf-peeping. Unfortunately, fall also is tick season and a time of increased risk of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and skin rash. Most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics if addressed promptly. If left untreated, the disease can affect the joints, heart, and nervous system.

More than 300,000 people were diagnosed with Lyme disease nationwide in 2014, with 96 percent of those cases concentrated in just 14 states in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Maine has one of the highest and fastest-growing incident rates of the disease, increasing from 225 cases in 2004 to 1,169 cases last year.

The reason that fall is a time of increased risk is that the immature ticks, or nymphs, that fed heavily during the late spring and early summer have now molted into adults and must feed again. Although larger and easier to spot than the tiny nymphs, they are numerous and active.

Maine is fortunate to have some outstanding resources for information about ticks and Lyme disease. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the Maine Centers for Disease Control provide a wealth of information on their websites, including easy-to-follow printable pages on how to prevent tick bites and, should one occur, how to safely remove the tick. The Maine Medical Center Research Institute offers an on-line survey that assesses the risk of having deer ticks on your property and offers suggestions to reduce tick habitat and control the infestation.

A few simple precautions can greatly lessen the risk. Wearing light-colored clothing makes it easier to see ticks, and tucking pant legs into socks and shirts in waistbands makes it harder for them to hide. Consider using a repellent or pre-treat clothing. Shower after spending time in the woods, and check yourself and children. Remember that pets don’t just carry ticks -- they can get sick, too – so check them and treat with repellant. Avoid walking through areas with leaf litter – that’s prime tick habitat. And hunters -- don’t hang infested deer hides in your yard.

If you are bitten, don’t panic. From the time a tick begins feeding, it generally takes about 36 hours for the host to be infected with the Lyme bacteria. Remove the tick with tweezers of a tick spoon, being careful to remove the entire tick, and wash the bite location thoroughly. The old methods of using a lit match, petroleum jelly, or nail polish are not recommended as they may accelerate the infection process. Note the date of the bite and monitor your health conditions daily, watching out for any fever, achiness, fatigue or the telltale red ring around the bite. If symptoms do occur, see your doctor immediately. Lyme disease responds well to oral antibiotics, and the sooner treatment begins, the better.

Lyme disease was long thought to be a form of juvenile arthritis and was not identified as being spread by ticks until 1976. It is still considered an emerging disease and knowledge gaps remain. For example, diagnostic methods for tick-borne illnesses have not advanced as much as they should have. Consequently, the validity and accuracy of information regarding the incidence and geographic spread of the disease may be lacking. Now, another tick-borne disease called anaplasmosis is emerging, carried by the same blacklegged tick as Lyme disease, and with symptoms that are similar in nature but often more severe.

The rapid spread of these diseases is alarming and makes it is essential that federal, state, and local health agencies, public health organizations, and the scientific community work together to improve prevention and detection efforts, as well as to accelerate research to address this crucial public-health challenge. The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act of 2015 I have co-sponsored would help ensure the necessary resources are dedicated to fighting tick-borne diseases.

Since there currently are no vaccines for Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, or other tick-borne diseases, prevention and treatment are crucial. In order to mount a strong national prevention and treatment effort, the legislation would create a Tick-Borne Diseases Committee that would consist of physicians, scientists, public health leaders, health agency officials, patients, and patient advocates. This national advisory body will help bring needed focus to improved reporting methods, better diagnostic tools, and more coordinated efforts from local to federal levels.

With individual precautions, we all can reduce our risk of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, and increase our enjoyment of the outdoors. With a national effort, we can stop the spread of these devastating diseases and protect the health of all.