State officials expect a high number of Lyme disease cases this year, largely because unseasonably mild temperatures are causing ticks breed sooner.

“The life cycle of a deer tick is complicated based on different weather patterns and different geography,” said state epidemiologist Stephen Sears. “We had a lengthy fall without any hard freezes or ground cover and a quick melt. When it’s cold they stay dormant. As soon as we had warmer weather, as we saw in March, they start going through their life cycle.”

Officials say many cases go unreported because people didn’t know they were bitten.

Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said education is key to making people aware of ticks and the increase of Lyme disease in Maine.

“We believe there is some under-reporting by people who aren’t aware that they have a tick bite and if it remains on them for a 48-hour period it releases toxin into the bloodstream,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that Lyme disease reporting is only as good as the person who goes to the doctor and have a test to confirm they have Lyme.”

The bacterial infection is carried by the black-legged deer tick. The number of cases reported to the state jumped from 908 in 2008 to 1,002 in 2011. In 2000, there were 71 cases reported.

The Maine CDC has organized events in recognition of National Lyme Disease Awareness Month, including programs at L.L. Bean and Cabela’s, a poster contest for elementary students and an audio contest for high school and college students.

“Our major goal is a multi-prong approach to educating the public to be hyper-aware of the increase in Lyme disease,” Pinette said.

She said people should stay out of tall grass and forests, and if they can’t, wear light-colored clothing so they can see the ticks and quickly remove them. She said when someone finds a tick, they should try to pull it out with tweezers rather than using Vaseline or a burning match.

“People should also use landscaping techniques,” she said. “If your home is near the woods, try to have a barrier, maybe gravel or wood chips laid down. And move the playground closer to the house.”

Pinette said the highest incidents of Lyme disease are found in children between the ages of 5 and 14 and men over 45 who hunt, work in the woods and golf.

Sears said white-footed mice are the main carriers of the Lyme disease-causing bacteria borrelia burgdorferi.

The National Science Foundation said Lyme disease cases are far more common than West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases because of fragmented forests, which means there are fewer predators, like coyotes, for the mice, and that allows them to multiply and the ticks to thrive.

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]