Lyme Disease ‘Epidemic’ Causes Stir on Maine Island

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–August 25, 2011.  A growth in tick populations and increase in Lyme disease rates over the past few years on an island in Maine have local health officials scrambling to find a solution to keep the problem at bay. So far this year there have been 20 official cases and over 20 suspected cases that have been treated with antibiotics on the island of Islesboro. In the past eight years, the health center has seen at least 69 cases of Lyme disease out of a population of 600, which according to Islesboro’s Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Committee, constitutes an epidemic. The blame for this ‘epidemic’ has been largely attributed to deer, which serve as the tick’s primary host. There are about 500 deer on the 11-mile-long Island, making it almost as high as the human population. As such, one of the proposed solutions that residents are voting on is to allow gun hunting to reduce the deer herd from 48 to 10 deer per square mile.

Unfortunately, though proposals of the prevention committee focus on prevention and include landscape modification in addition to management of deer and other wildlife, they also recommend the use of pesticides including repellants such as DEET and synthetic pyrethroid compounds such as permethrin, bifenthrin and cyhalothrin.

Conventional pesticides have been ineffective and create risks for people and the environment. For a pesticide to work, it must come in contact with or be consumed by the pest. Although they use vegetation as a launching pad for finding new hosts, ticks do not eat vegetation and are likely to spend most of their lives in sheltered areas, like mouse burrows, where pesticides will not come in contact with them. Thus, applications of poisons to vegetation is not very effective and results in harmful effects on nontarget organisms, including humans.

Furthermore, these pesticides are toxic. For years scientists have raised concerns about the use of DEET and seizures among children, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that there is not enough information to implicate DEET with these incidents. DEET is quickly absorbed through the skin and has caused adverse effects including severe skin reactions such as large blisters and burning sensations. Use of DEET by pregnant woman has been linked to birth defects, and laboratory studies have found that DEET can cause neurological damage, including brain damage in children.

DEET’s synergistic effect with other insecticides is also a major health concern. DEET, when used in combination with permethrin -a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide, likely facilitates enhanced dermal absorption of permethrin and induces symptoms such as headache, loss of memory, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and ataxia, which causes an inability to coordinate muscular movements.

Rather than reaching for the DEET or toxic pesticides such as permethrin to repel and kill ticks, there are some non-toxic techniques that are effective in significantly reducing the population of ticks in a given area. It is important to understand the life cycle of the ticks and their relationship to other animals.

Contact with ticks occurs when we venture into the grassy or wooded areas where they live. They can also be brought into homes on pets that roam outside – especially if pets wander in areas that provide a good mouse habitat. Common mice habitats include woods, bushes, leaf piles, burrows and other areas that provide cover to protect them from their predators. In areas that are potential tick habitats, you should wear light-colored clothing that covers the body (especially your legs) because it makes it easier to spot ticks so they can be removed before they bite.

You should use only unscented deodorant, soap and shampoo. An exception is Packers Tar Soap, which has a natural pine scent and seems to keep ticks from biting once they have been picked up. Similarly, you can try using least-toxic herbal repellants such as oil of lemon eucalyptus and essential oils. The scented oil of lemon eucalyptus masks both carbon dioxide and lactic acid exhalations that alerts the tick to your presence, essentially hiding humans from detection. After you have walked through high grass in a tick infested area, check the entire body for ticks and shower to wash off any ticks that have not yet become embedded.

If you do find an embedded tick, remove it carefully. Protect your hands with gloves or a tissue. Use blunt, curved tweezers, not your bare fingers, and exert pressure on the head of the tick and gently pulling the tick straight out very slowly. Do not twist and do not crush the tick. The body fluids can cause infection if exposed to even unbroken skin. Do not kill the tick while still embedded. Coating with petroleum jelly will block its breathing apparatus and force it to withdraw, usually within 30 minutes. Kill the tick in soapy water or alcohol, clean the wound with antiseptic, and monitor carefully for any signs of infection.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia Burgdorferi. It is spread by a number of different ticks, but the deer tick is the most common vector. The white footed mouse usually carries the bacteria. Ticks often reside in the den of the mouse, feed on the mouse’s blood in the early stages of their life and pick up the bacteria. During later feeding on humans, they can pass on the bacteria.

Symptoms of Lyme disease can vary from person to person, but in most cases a bump that looks like a bulls-eye that develops along with a possible rash at the site of the bite or elsewhere on the body. The bump will be red on light skin and look like a bruise on dark skin, and will usually occur within 30 days of a bite. In that time, the person may also develop flu-like symptoms: fatigue, chills, headache, muscle and joint aches, and a low fever. In about 25% of cases no rash or bump will develop at all. Anyone bitten by a tick in an area with a high rate of Lyme disease should contact their doctor.

For more information on non-toxic tick control, see our Fact Sheet.