June 17, 2013

Lab tracks Maine's tick time bomb

By Joe Lawlor / Staff Writer

Melanie Renell and Jackie Allen trudged through the scrub and thin pine forest, wearing shin-high boots and extra-long winter socks and waving blanket-sized flags made out of broomsticks and corduroy fabric.

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Left to right, Ryan Lane, Mariana Rivera Rodriguez, Jocelyn Lahey and Conor McGrory identify types of ticks at Maine Medical Center’s Vector-borne Disease Laboratory in South Portland.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Melanie Renell uses a square piece of corduroy attached to a broomstick to gather ticks at the Kennebunk Plains in Kennebunk on Thursday for the Vector-borne Disease Laboratory of the Maine Medical Center.

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In their backpacks, they carried tweezers and plastic vials filled with rubbing alcohol.

Enter the tick hunters.

On Thursday, the pair combed through the Kennebunk Plains, on a search-and-research mission for the bloodsucking parasites.

The two work for Maine Medical Center's Vector-borne Disease Laboratory in South Portland, which studies the 14 species of ticks in Maine, including the deer tick, carrier of Lyme disease.

The lab, founded in 1988 and unique to Maine, conducts far-reaching research on ticks, and participates in national studies that could end up being vital to controlling ticks and improving public health.

The studies delve into topics such as how rats and migratory birds, in addition to deer, can contribute to the spread of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease reached its highest level in Maine in 2012, with 1,111 cases reported, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That's up from 218 reported cases in 2002, roughly a fivefold increase over a decade. Deer ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, have spread inland from coastal regions and into the northern reaches of Maine.

Capturing the ticks is as simple as brushing the flags over foliage, and inspecting the fabric for the crawling insects. Corduroy is a useful fabric for the research because the ticks can easily latch onto the grooves. Once the ticks are on the fabric, the researchers grab them with tweezers and deposit them into the alcohol vials, where the ticks swim around for a while before dying.

"They're hardy little creatures," said Renell, wearing a green John Deere baseball cap.

On Thursday, they caught a few ticks, but it was far below the 100 ticks per hour level that Renell reached one time when tick hunting in Wells. Renell grinned while letting a tick crawl on her arm before squeezing it with a tweezer.

The tools for capturing ticks might be low-tech, but the research is complex. The two captured mostly deer ticks, but the purpose of Thursday's field work was to pick up dog ticks for Northern Arizona University, which is comparing the genetics of ticks across different regions of the United States.

At the tick lab, researchers analyze many aspects of ticks, including possible effects of climate change, animals that carry ticks, changes in Maine's habitat that have made it more hospitable for ticks, and ways to naturally control the tick population.

While all ticks are a nuisance to humans, deer ticks are a focus of the lab because carrying Lyme disease makes them a public health threat. Deer ticks need to be latched on for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease.

June and July in Maine are high nymph deer tick season, which is when the adolescent ticks are numerous and it's an especially ripe time for picking up a tick. The nymphs are difficult to spot, as they are only the size of a poppy seed. In many cases of Lyme disease, people did not know they had a tick, said Chuck Lubelczyk, field biologist for the tick lab.

Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC, said that Lyme disease is a growing concern, and cases keep cropping up in new areas of the state. In the early 1990s, Lyme disease was limited to coastal areas. "It keeps going farther and farther into the state," she said.

Some sufferers of Lyme disease have lasting symptoms, even after the disease has run its course. Patients with Post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, as it's called, suffer from fatigue, joint and muscle aches and pain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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