Reports of confirmed Lyme disease cases have been pouring into the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention this year at a rate three times above normal.

Fifty cases of people with Lyme disease in Maine were reported to the CDC in January and February, compared to an average of 15 for those two months during the previous five years, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC.

The warm winter and current balmy conditions are likely to blame, medical officials say, setting the stage for a possible increase in ticks and tick-borne disease this summer.

“Lyme disease has tripled in just the first two months of the year. I’ve never heard of ticks in February and March in Maine,” Mills said.

Nine hundred cases of Lyme disease have been reported each year during the past two years. Mills said people likely can expect to see that figure go up in 2010.

Similarly, veterinarians in southern Maine say many dogs were diagnosed with Lyme disease this winter, something that normally doesn’t happen until spring.

“I was pulling ticks off (dogs) in January and seeing active cases of Lyme disease in January,” said veterinarian Sandra Mitchell at Animal Medical Associates in Saco.

“It’s already been a banner year for ticks. Once they get out and start breeding and feeding, we’re in for a rough year.”

As far as Windham veterinarian Diane Shively is concerned, people should never have let their guard down.

“Lyme disease in this area is very common. We deal with it on a regular basis,” said Shively, a relief veterinarian at Lakes Region Animal Hospital.

Ticks normally come out in the middle of April, when the snow is gone and the ground thaws. But given the tropical weather Maine saw last fall and this winter, ticks have been active most of the past several months, said Chuck Lubelczyk, a biologist with the Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory at Maine Medical Center.

This winter, many ticks never went into the hibernation phase, Lubelczyk said. The ticks that did hibernate in the ground in the late fall will feed all summer long when they become active, he said.

And this year, the rodent population is up as well, Lubelczyk added, so that will serve to spread the disease further because mice and small mammals carry the tick that spreads Lyme disease.

“I think what you can say is, people will be more exposed to ticks, and there will be an increased chance of Lyme disease,” Lubelczyk said.

In southern Maine, especially, that’s a concern.

Mills said the disease is now found in all 16 counties in Maine. However, since reported Lyme disease cases began to increase here 15 years ago, Mills said that the numbers have been highest in York and Cumberland counties.

It is in York County where studies by Maine Medical Center biologists have shown that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of ticks carry the Lyme disease bacteria, Lubelczyk said.

Lyme disease was first linked to ticks in Lyme, Conn., in 1978 after a spate of cases involving a unique kind of arthritis.

More than 30 years later, little is known about how to successfully treat Lyme disease in more advanced cases.

When Lyme disease in humans is treated immediately with antibiotics, there are no lingering problems, Mills said.

However, veterinarians are not as certain how to help cure dogs of the widespread disease, particularly in advanced stages.

“If you ask 10 vets, you get 11 options,” Mitchell said. “It’s true there isn’t any scientific proof to support any of the common treatments. We’re kind of left to our own good judgment.”

One thing health experts agree on: Lyme disease is a danger now more than ever.

“If the dog is getting a positive test for Lyme disease, people need to be aware of their environment. If it’s a parent with children, you want to know if your dog is positive if your kids play in the same place,” said Shively, the Windham veterinarian.

 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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