Outdoors in Maine: University of Maine will start testing ticks for disease

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Ten years ago, few outdoor folks in this neck of the woods gave ticks a second thought.

Not so today. Most of us who spend time outdoors have had encounters with deer ticks, the bad ones, or know someone with Lyme disease. Recently, University of Maine professor Jim Dill, a tick expert, appeared as a guest on my Sunday night call-in radio program, Maine Outdoors. The phones rang constantly the entire hour as listeners cued up to ask their questions to Professor Dill.

Our guest was most informative and interesting. Some points he made:

  • In Maine last year, there were 1,500 documented cases of Lyme infections. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) believes that in fact actual cases of Lyme disease in Maine are at least 10 times that figure.
  • Along with Lyme disease, deer ticks carry other bacteria and viruses, including babesiosis and anaplasmosis.
  • Although ticks need to be attached to your body for 36 to 48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, a shorter exposure time may be risky in the case of deer ticks infected with babesiosis or anaplasmosis.
  • Contrary to popular myth, ticks don’t jump on you. They hang on the edge of a fern or plant swaying back and forth waiting for a host to rub against the vegetation. The act of doing this is called “questing.”

Deer ticks, or black-legged ticks as they are sometimes called, are nothing to trifle with. All three of the tick-induced infections are serious and potentially debilitating. From experience with tick infections, state medical facilities and physicians are getting more informed and sophisticated in treating and diagnosing these tick diseases, although it is a very imperfect science.

Today, as a rule, even if you have an embedded tick, or even the resultant “bulls eye” rash, physicians will stop short of prescribing antibiotics until the patient shows some symptoms.

Of course, not all deer ticks carry any of the infections. So testing the ticks in the laboratory makes a great deal of sense, especially if the tick in question has been on your body for more than 24 hours. According to Dill, in central, downeast and northern Maine, only about 10-20 percent of deer ticks actually carry any of the worrisome infections. This figure is markedly higher in Maine’s southernmost counties

The good news is that for the first time in Maine we will soon have a lab that can test a tick for any of the infections, and get back to you in a few days.

According to Dill, starting in January the University of Maine Cooperative Extension will offer tick testing for a modest fee. This is wonderful news for obvious reasons. The physician and the patient are no longer “flying blind.” And in cases of where the tick tests negative, the patient need not be subjected to a regimen of strong antibiotics.

Owners of pets need to realize that, although dog ticks are not infectious, the smaller deer ticks can also infect your dog with Lyme disease. Curiously, there is a preventative Lyme disease vaccine for dogs, but not for humans.

When it comes to ticks, the best defense is a good offense. After a day in the woods or the garden, always check yourself for ticks. What’s a good anti-tick spray? Professor Dill, and many others in the know, highly recommend a spray for your clothes only that contains the ingredient Permethrin.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program, “Maine Outdoors,” heard at 7 p.m. Sundays on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.net.

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