Diseases carried by ticks hitting record numbers in Maine — but not Lyme

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a new warning about diseases carried by ticks.

So far this year, Maine has recorded 424 cases of Lyme, and many more are expected, as reporting tends to lag by several months.

But while Lyme is a familiar seasonal visitor, it’s not the only infection transmitted by the deer tick. Anaplasmosis and babesiosis have reached all-time highs this year, according to Maine CDC.

A female deer tick (left) and a nymph deer tick.  | Courtesy of Griffin Dill, UMaine Cooperative Extension

A female deer tick (left) and a nymph deer tick. | Courtesy of Griffin Dill, UMaine Cooperative Extension

As of August 18, health providers reported 224 cases of anaplasmosis, far outpacing the 186 cases reported in all of 2015 and shattering the previous high of 191 cases in 2014. Knox, Lincoln, and Sagadahoc counties are particularly hard hit.

Anaplasmosis is a bacterial infection that can lead to similar long-term effects as Lyme without a proper diagnosis, including neurological and joint problems and kidney failure. Rarely, it can lead to brain swelling and meningitis.

While doctors treat anaplasmosis with the same antibiotic prescribed for Lyme disease, the infection doesn’t result in Lyme’s hallmark bull’s-eye rash. It’s caused by a different organism called Anaplasma phagocytophilum that leads to flulike symptoms, such as body aches, fever, chills and headache. Symptoms typically appear within one to two weeks of a tick bite.

Babesiosis is the other tick-borne disease emerging in Maine. The state has recorded 56 cases this year, compared to 55 in all of 2015, the previous high. York and Knox counties are home to the most cases.

Babesiosis is a parasitic infection that can especially sicken those with weak immune systems and people who have had their spleen removed. Some people with the infection notice no signs, while others experience flulike symptoms, sweating, dark urine and anemia.

Like with Lyme, southern and Midcoast areas are at higher risk for anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Cases of anaplasmosis are actually outpacing Lyme in Knox and Lincoln counties, though that’s likely to change as Lyme reports continue to be recorded.

Lyme still poses the biggest health threat in terms of the total number of cases. In 2015, 1,206 cases were reported in Maine.

This year, Lyme infections thankfully don’t appear on pace to set a new record.

A bull's eye rash from a tick bite. Source: U.S. CDC

A bull’s eye rash from a tick bite. Source: U.S. CDC

Ticks don’t like dry weather, so their numbers have actually plummeted this year throughout inland areas of Maine, explained Chuck Lubelczyk, a vector ecologist with the Maine Medical Research Institute.

“They have probably hunkered down into a hibernation phase for the rest of the summer,” he said. “They’re just going to wait.”

But their populations remain robust in coastal areas, where fog has helped to mitigate the dry conditions, he said.

Small rodents might also be behind the rising rates of anaplasmosis and babesiosis, he said. Mice and chipmunks carry the infections and transmit them to ticks, which in turn infect us. With the recent mild winters, plenty of both are scampering around.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

As if getting infected with one of these diseases isn’t bad enough, the deer tick can carry two or more at once. So far in 2016, 11 such “co-infections” have been reported, in which individuals were sickened by at least two of these illnesses, according to Maine CDC.

I’d almost be impressed that the tiny eight-legged bugs can pull that off, if I weren’t so disgusted by them. Reid Robishaw, a kindergartener at the Gilford Butler School in South Thomaston, captures my sentiments exactly in his submission to the state’s Lyme Disease Awareness poster contest.

He won the contest for his age group.

Source: Maine CDC

Source: Maine CDC

They are, Reid. They really are.

We all know the drill by now, but the prevention tips bear repeating:

— Use caution in tick infested areas; stay on paths and avoid brushing against high grass or shrubs

— Wear long sleeves and pants, or clothing treated with permethrin

— Use an EPA-approved repellant, and reapply as the directions state

— Check yourself for ticks daily, paying special attention to warm, protected areas like the nape of the neck, armpits, groin area, and behind the knees.


Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.