This year’s unusually warm winter and early spring mean ticks have become active earlier than usual, and if a 10-year pattern of warmer winter weather continues, then tick-borne diseases are likely to become more of a problem in the future, researchers say.

A longer tick season is bad news for humans and animals because ticks carry bacteria that spread disease.

The biggest problem in Maine is the deer tick, which spreads Lyme disease in humans and pets, biologists and health officials say.

“Ticks are showing up earlier this year. We’ve had (tick) submissions earlier this year. After those two warm days we had in March, they really started rolling in,” said Susan Elias, a biologist at Maine Medical Center’s Vector-borne Disease Laboratory in South Portland, where biologists work to control tick-borne diseases, primarily Lyme disease. The lab will also identify ticks brought in by the public.

Temperatures reached record-breaking 80s for two days in March, and such warm weather spurs tick activity.

Adult ticks are active and looking to feed earlier, and a lack of snow has meant it’s easier for them to find a host, be it a whitetail deer, dog or human. Ticks can sense a potential meal from 3 feet away.

For female ticks, an early spring means eggs deposited in leaf litter could produce larvae by early August instead of later in the month. That means the smaller nymph ticks will be feeding earlier, too.

As temperatures overall have warmed over the past 10 years, deer ticks have spread, and they are expected to disperse further, Elias said.

Reported cases of Lyme disease in northern Maine have averaged fewer than six a year in Aroostook County. Temperatures there now typically don’t get warm enough to enable the deer tick to complete its life cyle, Elias said.

But using a 2011 model by the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, the vector-borne disease lab predicts that by 2050, a warming climate will lead to an increase in deer ticks throughout the state, even in northern areas, Elias said. All it would take is an average temperature increase of about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, she said.

Lyme disease cases are expected to increase as a result. In 2004, there were 225 confirmed cases in Maine. In 2009 and again in 2011, there were close to 1,000.

And in 2004, only three of Maine’s 16 counties had more than 25 reported cases of Lyme disease – by 2010, 12 counties did.

It’s a big concern for health officials in Maine, said Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

“Last year, we had our highest number of reported cases of Lyme disease, with 981. And some are not reported. With the mild winter, we expect at least 900 reported cases this year,” she said.

Because of the increase, the Maine CDC is offering more educational seminars this year to help prevent the spread of the disease.

Right now, Maine is not one of the top states for reported Lyme disease cases. And Pinette hopes, through education, to prevent it from breaking into the top 10, which includes Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Pinette said that because research to find a safe vaccine or a botanical lawn spray that kills ticks is inconclusive, the best prevention right now is education.

This spring, the Maine CDC is holding tick and Lyme disease seminars around the state and L.L. Bean is a partner for the first time. Cabela’s is helping with the seminars for the second year.

“L.L. Bean has always been about helping to further folks’ enjoyment of the outdoors. Partnering with the (CDC) to conduct Lyme disease prevention seminars during our Camping Weekend event in May is a way to give customers important preventative tips to better protect themselves and their families from ticks,” said L.L. Bean spokesman Mac McKeever.

Bob Maurais, owner of a Sanford pesticide company, has been giving free seminars on ticks and Lyme disease with his wife since 2004. But Maurais, whose wife, Barbara, had Lyme disease, is relieved that the state is increasing this effort, and that major outdoor retailers are helping.

“I applaud the CDC in what it’s doing this year trying to be more proactive and that’s what has to happen. They have to get more organizations out there involved. They’re hitting so many more people than we ever could with our little seminars of 30 to 40 people,” Maurais said.

Some wildlife and forest management practices actually help spread Lyme disease.

Pinette said efforts by land managers to keep forested habitat intact, sometimes for the benefit of wildlife, provide good tick habitat. And state wildlife biologists’ effort to grow the state’s population of whitetail deer, the primary host of deer ticks, also could spread Lyme disease.

For the moment, she said, education is the best way to slow the spread of Lyme disease in the state.

“It’s moving up here, but we believe with good awareness we can help prevent it,” Pinette said. “The last couple of years, we’ve tried to get the word out.”

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

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