There are about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year in the U.S., with nearly 2,000 a year coming from Maine.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Researchers estimate that only a 10th of cases are ever reported, largely because Lyme’s symptoms are so close to those of other illnesses, and believe incidence has tripled since the 1990s, as climate change has made more of the country hospitable for ticks.

And then there’s this number: 63, as in the amount of dollars spent on Lyme disease research for each of the 500,000 or so estimated cases each year.

That’s not enough for a disease that, in Maine particularly but not solely, has gone from hardly an afterthought to a real concern every time you go near tall grass in about a generation. Lyme disease, and other emerging tick-borne illnesses, need a level of attention that better matches the pain they inflict on people.

In Maine, where temperatures are rising as fast as anywhere in the U.S., it’s no coincidence that the increase in ticks has been observable, even to the untrained eye. Hiker, hunters, even those just playing in their backyards — everyone, particularly those in the southern part of the state, now know to look out for ticks where they never had to before.

Ticks are hurting wildlife too. Tens of thousands of the little suckers can be found on each moose, with winter tick infestation the leading cause of population declines in Maine.

In response, researchers have set up a robust program to identify places where ticks are plentiful, and to monitor the pathogens they are carrying, which is most often Lyme disease but also other nasty tick-borne diseases, such as babesiosis, anaplasmosis and the Powassan virus. One Maine study found Lyme disease in 25% of ticks; in some areas, the number approaches 50%.

Mainers can send ticks to a lab at the University of Maine for researchers to identify and test for pathogens, giving them an idea of where the population is growing, and what activities are bringing them in contact with humans.

This fall, the Maine Medical Center Research Institute was at deer-tagging stations in York County, testing the ticks on the animals.

Researchers believe southern Maine is a bellwether for northern counties, they told MainePublic — Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are slowly spreading up the state. What they learn from studying the spread in York County will inform the statewide response. Already, they’ve found that good forest management and the removal of invasive plants can make a difference.

But more work, and more funding, is needed nationally. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2020 released a national plan for tick-borne diseases, and is now working on a national strategy. So far, the top need identified is more research on where tick populations are increasing and why.

Lyme and other tick-borne diseases have flourished in the warmer temperatures brought by climate change. Those temperatures are going to keep rising, and the tick population with them.

That will affect not only the hundreds of thousands of Americans who will come down with an illness, but also all those who have their outdoor adventures diminished by the presence of ticks.

That’s a big price to pay – far bigger than whatever we’d spend on researching tick populations and doing what we can to get rid of them.

 


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