Thanks to climate change, experts say Maine now the ‘epicenter’ of Lyme disease epidemic

The arrival of spring this year brought a explosion of ticks across Maine and, with it, a surge in tick-borne diseases. Conservation groups are warning that the milder winters, earlier springs, and hotter summers that signal a changing climate are also making the state even more hospitable to the blood-sucking parasites.

Maine Conservation Voters held a press conference last Thursday to discuss climate change and its impact on the prevalence of Lyme disease in Maine, which has surged over the past 17 years.

“In 2001, the rate of Lyme disease [in Maine] was approximately 8 and a half cases per 100,000 people,” said Joe Boucher, a policy associate at the Maine Public Health Association, at the State House press conference last Thursday. “It’s almost 140 cases per 100,000 people now.”

The Environmental Protection Agency tracks many indicators of climate change, such as wildfire numbers and greenhouse emission rates. Lyme disease is one those of indicators.

Tony Owens, an attending physician at Maine Medical Center, said the prevalence of Lyme disease in Maine is higher than the rest of the country, making the state the “epicenter of this endemic problem.”

The concern isn’t just Lyme disease. Cases of anaplasmosis, which Owens described as “the second most common tick-borne disease,” have also increased in Maine. Both anaplasmosis and Lyme disease cause fever and fatigue, but anaplasmosis doesn’t cause the trademark bull’s eye rash of Lyme disease.

“It’s more serious to have a case of anaplasmosis at Maine Medical Center than it is to have a heart attack,” Owens said. “Your survival is better with a heart attack than it is with anaplasmosis.”

Only 17 anaplasmosis cases were reported in 2008. By 2017, that number rose to 662, according to a report by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. During the same time period, reported Lyme disease cases rose from 909 to 1769, with cases concentrated in southern and coastal areas. The disease, however, has spread farther north since 2004.

These numbers have Mainers reconsidering how they spend their time outdoors. A recent study from Critical Insights shows that, of the potential impacts climate change could have on the state, Maine voters are most concerned about the increase in insect-borne diseases.

Bobby Reynolds, a sportsman from Manchester, Maine, talked about the effect a growing tick population has had on turkey hunters in the state. Every year, fewer and fewer turkey permits are sold, according to Reynolds, which could negatively impact the state’s outdoor economy.

“Each year, more and more hunters decide to abandon the sport they love,” he said at Thursday’s press conference. “And when I ask them why they no longer hunt turkeys, it always comes down to one reason. It’s the tick infestation. They just don’t think it’s worth risking contracting one of these terrible infectious disease that you get if you’re bit by one of these [ticks].”

Warmer temperatures also increase the amount of ground-level ozone, a gas that forms when sunlight interacts with fuel exhaust from cars and industrial plants. High ozone levels can aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma, which affects 150,000 Mainers.

Beth Ahearn, political director for Maine Conservation Voters, highlighted the importance of discussing climate change and its connection to Lyme disease in an email. Ahearn said that Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, as well as 1st Congressional District Rep. Chellie Pingree, have “demonstrated leadership on climate.”

2nd Congressional District Rep. Bruce Poliquin has a 20 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters, and has previously said that he is “suspect” of human involvement in climate change.

“We are not convinced that people link Lyme disease, or the increase of ticks or asthma for that matter, to climate change,” said Ahearn. “If they care about these health issues, they should let their lawmakers know, and ask for action on climate.”

(Photo: Dan Thombs/Creative Commons via Flickr)

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