Lyme disease was not identified until 1975 in Lyme, Connecticut, and it wasn’t until 1987 that Lyme disease was identified in Maine. Before the 1980s, you couldn’t even find ticks in the Pine Tree State. In 1989, however, the first case of Lyme on Monhegan Island was diagnosed.
What made Monhegan such an odd case was its lack of mice. The conventional wisdom in the late 1980s was that ticks couldn’t exist in a region that lacked either mice or deer (the two primary hosts at different stages of the deer tick’s life cycle). It did not take long for researchers to deduce that Monhegan’s Norway rats were the host that substituted for common field mice. Interestingly, both the deer and the rats on Monhegan were introduced to Monhegan’s ecosystem by humans. In order for the Lyme problem to be solved for good, either of those hosts also needed to be eliminated by humans.
Courtesy of The Vector-borne Disease Laboratory at Maine Medical Center Research Institute
Doctor Peter Rand and Chuck Lubelczyk recounted the story of solving the Lyme problem on Monhegan. Together with Dr. Robert Smith and researchers Eleanor Lacombe, Mary Holman and Susan Elias from the Lyme & Vector-borne Disease Laboratory at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, they were involved with the expulsion of Lyme disease from the island in the 1990s. Chuck and Pete are two respected experts when it comes to ticks in Maine, and both men have worked with vector-borne diseases for decades.
How it worked
“Originally it was thought that mice were the primary host—and they still are a major host—but chipmunks, red squirrels, and other small mammals can also be host to the tick. And those animals maintain the infection within them.” – Dr. Peter Rand
Attempt number one:
The first plan was to treat the rats with a pesticide that would kill the ticks on them. The plan was to stick bait inside two-foot plastic tubes rimmed on each end with a pesticide that would coat the rats and kill the ticks on them. However, the tubes quickly became infested with slugs, thwarting the experiment.
Attempt number two:
The second solution was to kill the rat population. The rats lived in close proximity to the humans which made this challenging. The poison was administered to the rats, but before the population could be significantly reduced, one dog became ill after attacking a poisoned rat, and the experiment was called off.
Courtesy of The Vector-borne Disease Laboratory at Maine Medical Center Research Institute
Attempt number three:
The United States Department of Agriculture had a method of eliminating ticks by feeding deer ivermectin (a substance used to treat heartworm and various tropical diseases). The deer were fed corn laced with ivermectin, but after two years, while partially effective, the approach was too expensive and labor intensive to be maintained,
“It looked like if that had continued, it may have been successful… but by the time we got to that stage, Lyme disease had increased a lot on the island, and the islanders were becoming very anxious to get rid of the deer. One of the things that drives Monhegan’s economy is the tourist season which lasts only 10 weeks, so they didn’t want people not coming to Monhegan because of the threat of Lyme disease.
The desire to get rid of the deer increased—plus, the island was becoming covered with barberry because the deer didn’t eat it, but they’d eat everything else. So, this invasive species was going wild. After several meetings and great involvement with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the final vote was to get rid of the deer by using a very professional sharp shooter.” – Dr. Peter Rand
Attempt number four:
Anthony (Tony) DeNicola completed his doctorate at Purdue on deer population control, and shortly after he was asked to kill every deer on the island of Monhegan. He was the founder of a non-profit called White Buffalo which was committed to conserving native species and ecosystems through wildlife management. Tony used baiting stations which he monitored at night and used night vision scopes to identify and dispatch the deer. Between April 2nd and April 6, 1997, 52 deer were killed. They were extremely malnourished due to over population. There were estimated to be about 25 deer remaining on the island, so a vote was taken at a town meeting in March of 1998 to decide whether or not the remaining deer should be killed. The results were: 31 yes and 23 no. By the following March, there were no more deer left on Monhegan.
Since then, there have been only two cases of Lyme disease on Monhegan.
Q & A With Dr. Peter Rand and Chuck Lubelczyk
Why is Monhegan’s geography special in relation to its experience with ticks?
Chuck: Matinicus and Monhegan are both far away from the mainland (about 15 miles and about 12 miles from the mainland respectively). If an island were to have a massive reduction of deer, the mainland would be your source of deer coming back out or repopulating. One of the issues with islands that are close to the mainland or—as in Casco Bay—islands that are close to one another is that the deer have no hesitation to jump in the water and swim across a body of water. On Casco Bay islands, we hear stories of a hunt starting say for instance on Peaks Island, and the deer just jump off and swim to Long Island. When the hunt starts on Long and they swim to Peaks they swim to Great Diamond or someplace else to get away from the hunters.
What can you tell me about pesticide use as a means of fighting Lyme?
Chuck: One of the primary tools for us to control ticks has been and still is the application of pesticides. Frequently these pesticides are spread at the landscape level around properties. However, there’s a degree of hesitation and wariness on the part of island communities to apply these because there’s a big concern that these things are going to run off into the estuaries and into areas where you may have lobstering and other kinds of shellfishing going on. And so islands are very hesitant to use one of the primary tools to actually control ticks. I think it speaks to the need for having a very detailed program on each island. And certainly taking into account each community’s needs or preferences for having some kind of tick control. It’s not a broad-brush approach. You have got to treat each island almost individually, and you have to craft a tick management program to each island’s needs.
What has it been like working with islanders on the issue of combatting Lyme disease?
Peter: We had some extremely devoted folks—that’s where Islesboro comes to mind—they had a committee out there that’s really dedicated to educating the people and making them aware of what was going on.
Chuck: Peter brings up a really good point: having people on the islands that care about this issue and care about it from an educated and rational perspective… Ones that don’t want to engage in hysteria but want to actually have the facts and have the good information on hand and present to the island and make a case. And though we are talking about deer a lot, really what we’re talking about is tick control—some kind of community-based tick control project, and one of the real legs of that stool on the islands are the island health centers. There’s no way on many of the coastal islands that we could have the surveillance programs that we do without really good cooperation from these island health centers. Because they really are the focal point for information on the islands. They provide us with a very good center location for a base of operations if we come out to these islands, they are a good point for us to investigate. They know what’s on the ground of these islands. They know where people are finding ticks, they know who has gotten Lyme disease on the island. So, they are an excellent resource for both us and the island communities. And I think there is a direct relationship between how successful some of our work has been on Maine islands and the ability of these island health centers to really help us out.
The interview above has been edited for length and clarity.
The island community of Islesboro is about three miles away from the mainland—a distance which deer can swim fairly easily. Deer exist naturally on Islesboro, though the population is generally malnourished due to high concentration. In 2015, there were found to be about 50 deer per square mile, while back on the mainland there were about 20. Not surprisingly, the deer population is also heavily infected with Lyme disease.
Because of these conditions, the residents on Islesboro suffer unusually high rates of Lyme. In 2013, there were 113 year-round residents infected, and in the following years the numbers stayed relatively high (with the exception of a 30% decrease in 2018). The prevalence of infected ticks on the island is largely attributed to the amount of deer, but a specialized hunt brings about unique complications. Fear of losing the deer hunting tradition, a cultural asset to many islanders, caused all town-wide discussions on hiring a sharpshooter to result in deadlock. In 2015, there was a vote at a town meeting to hire Anthony DeNicola, the sharpshooter of White Buffalo who killed all of the deer on Monhegan in the late 1990s. The results were 87 for the elimination of deer by sharpshooter and 148 against. However, special shotgun hunts have occurred to attempt to reduce the herd’s numbers, but none of those hunts have proven effective in reducing the cases of Lyme disease.
How it works
With such a stalemate, the only thing left to do is educate residents and visitors on how to protect themselves from ticks. Thus, the town assembled the Tickborne Disease Prevention Committee (TBDPC) on which both Linda Gillies and Derreth Roberts sit.
The TBDPC was originally formed in 2010 and was known as the “Tick Committee.” It has been at the forefront of the efforts to combat Lyme disease on Islesboro. The committee has overseen deer surveys and attempts to cull the herd, but the bulk of their work is now directed at community education primarily through printed and digital material.
Q & A with Linda Gillies and Derreth Roberts
What are some of the ways the TBDPC works to educate the public?
Linda: Well we work on several fronts. First of all, we established a tickborne disease prevention committee, and we work very closely with the health center staff. We have a multi-pronged approach. We have a website. We have brochures that are around town. We have notices around town at certain times of year that say the ticks are around, take precautions.
Derreth: We have information about the numbers of Lyme disease cases confirmed here on the island in our newspaper. We have a lot of people who have house rentals in the summer time for summer residents. Those folk are encouraged to take brochures and put them in the rented houses to educate visitors and summer residents. We have town meetings and often our committee is asked to update folks on what is going on with tick borne disease here on the island as well as other issues.
How does the community engage with the Lyme issue?
Derreth: Island people talk. When one family has an episode of Lyme disease, news of that travels, and I think there’s a growing concern. The health center does a wonderful job with posters and providing information. It’s interesting to note that last year we had 137 people come into the health center for help because they had a tick embedded. In earlier years the numbers were smaller. So it feels like people are more aware now. You see people working in their gardens wearing boots with socks over their pants. And I think role model—and those of us who have had problems—frequently remind people. We’ve gotten lots of questions, like what do you do when pets come into the house and bring ticks?
What do you think is in store for Islesboro’s crusade against ticks?
Linda: One thing we do is try to keep track about what is happening in other areas. Suddenly there’s a new tickborne disease—or a disease like Powassan or encephalitis or anaplasmosis—we try to keep track of that. But in terms of basic prevention, I think we’ve done pretty much what there is to do.
Can you talk about pesticide use as a prevention method?
Linda: It’s our new initiative. Our concern about pesticides grew out of our work with ticks. In our material, we say to spray your property, but then we began to investigate the chemicals that were being used for tick control. We discovered in many cases they are harmful to humans and the environment. So we recently formed a group, a subcommittee of the tick committee, called Pesticide Safety on Islesboro.
Derreth: We’re expanding our brochures and information to include more about pesticide use. Sometimes one bad problem can lead to a second problem. In this case ticks and the spread of tickborne diseases led to a second problem—what is used to control those ticks. Many of the chemicals can be harmful. I think that sometimes people experience problems with ticks, and the concern grows, so they resort to spraying their land. That spray can be a big problem. There are, however, more natural substances that can be used to try to take care of the ticks.
Linda: Particularly, the pesticides harm bees and shellfish. Our island income often relies on the shellfish. And gardens rely on the pollinators.
What does it do to the shellfish?
Linda: It affects their nervous systems, and they die. We have a mussel farm not far from here. We have someone working to get oysters, and of course there are clam diggers and lobstermen. The chemicals have been found in Penobscot Bay and Casco Bay. We know the chemicals travel, and if there’s too much of it, it could harm fishermen and aquaculturists.
The interview above has been edited for length and clarity.
Island health centers are assets to their communities for many reasons. They are a place to go for check-ups without needing to take the ferry to the mainland. In the war on ticks, they act as a primary witness to the prevalence of tickborne diseases. They help infected individuals get treatment, but they also help when it comes to prevention. Just like Islesboro’s Tickborne Disease Prevention Committee, Donna Wiegle of Swan’s Island Health Center has the goal of preventing people from contracting Lyme in the first place. Just like other islands, special deer hunts have been pursued in order to reduce the tick population, and there have also been controlled burnings aimed at destroying tick habitats. However, the method with the least controversy and fewest repercussions remains to be educating the public on how to reduce the chances of coming in contact with an infected deer tick.
How it works
Beyond helping island patients who are infected with Lyme, Donna has worked in the field with researchers like Chuck Lubelczyck of the Lyme & Vector-borne Disease Laboratory at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, she has collected samples of deer blood for testing. She played a major role in acquiring permissions from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) for special hunts outside the regular season. Among these responsibilities, she also aims to educate. She’s held educational programs on the island instructing people how to prevent themselves from coming in contact with ticks, what to do if they’re bitten, and what symptoms to associate with a potential case of Lyme disease.
Q & A with Donna Wiegle
What has been your role in the island’s fight against ticks and Lyme disease?
We have been collecting ticks since the 90s—before my time here as a full time resident. We have a relationship with Maine Medical Center’s Vector-borne Disease Lab. In particular, with Chuck Lubelczyk. Chuck’s been coming out here since the 90s. I came onboard here around 2001 as a full-time resident. I’ve been in contact with Chuck for a long time. He would come out twice a year to collect ticks—Spring and Fall when they’re looking to feed. I’ve been out collecting ticks with Chuck—which is very interesting… you just have a broom handle and attached is a piece of white colored corduroy fabric. You just go along the trails and wave it across the vegetation. You stop every couple of minutes to look at both sides of the flag, remove them with tweezers, and put them in a vial. Chuck has a collection of sites out here that he returns to each season to collect ticks. They take those ticks back to the lab, and they analyze them to see if they are carrying the bacteria for Lyme disease or anaplasmosis or babesiosis or one of the other tickborne diseases that are making appearances here on the coast of Maine. I’ve also done some work with him on our hunting season and collected blood samples from the deer.
How has Lyme impacted the community over time?
I have been working here for more than ten years now, and when I first started we rarely even heard of Lyme disease. One of our earliest cases was a gentleman in the summer population who had Lyme disease, didn’t know it, and ended up with chronic Lyme. Whether he got it here or not, I don’t know. Early on in treating Lyme, physicians in this area just weren’t familiar with it. They didn’t know what it looked like or the best methods for treating it. We had a lobsterman who went to the emergency room with the classic bullseye rash and was misdiagnosed. That wouldn’t happen today. Physicians in this area are now well aware because it’s very prevalent here, but I’m sure if you go up to Washington County and ask them—not so prevalent. But it will be. It’ll just move right up the coast like it has been doing.
What’s the deer situation like on Swan’s Island?
Chuck and his team were trying to assess our deer population by laying out these little grids across the island, and then they’d count deer scat. They must have a formula to assess that we have “x” number of deer per square mile. But in an effort to reduce deer and Lyme disease cases, how many a year do we have to get rid of in a normal hunting season? Is it 30? 50? How many are born each spring? Are we even making a dent in the population at all? We were approved for a special deer hunt very late in the season (winter 2017-2018). We will do it again next year, but we’ll start earlier. We had issues when we started because the doe were already pregnant, and the first deer that was killed was carrying twins. That freaked out the hunters around here—which is too bad. But next year we’ll start in December instead of February which should have a bigger impact, I hope.
What was the process of the special hunt?
A number of years ago, we asked IFW about having a more aggressive hunting season or an extended hunting season, and we were flatly turned down. There was not even any real discussion about it. We just got a “No.” They didn’t want to entertain the idea at all. That might have been five or six years ago. Our problem continued to get worse, so we had a meeting last August here at the clinic with our selectmen and four people from IFW.
People always want concrete numbers and statistics to support your case. We don’t have those numbers unfortunately. Not everybody comes here for their healthcare. A lot of people could be diagnosed and treated for Lyme, but they’re going to Ellsworth for medical care. So, when people ask, “How many cases of Lyme do you have?” and I have to say, “I don’t know.”
Based on anecdotal information I get from people, I can only say that I truly believe that each year there are more and more people diagnosed with Lyme disease. We’ve done a survey, but you can’t control what the return rate of the survey is. But I could write a list of probably 40 people in less than five minutes that I know of who have been diagnosed on the island. So, we laid all this out to IFW, and we plead our case that we needed to do something. We could no longer do nothing. We wanted to ask for a special deer hunt again, and they said there were many hurdles to get that approved.
We were finally able to get everything together, and we finally got approval much later than we had hoped. We had hoped to get approval for the hunt in December, and we didn’t get approved until the middle of February. That gave us about four weeks. We were approved to put baiting stations out, and if we could attract the deer, we could kill the deer.
We only killed two deer, which was very disappointing, but I feel like the positive part of it was that we got approved for the special hunt. We’ll be able to have the special hunt next year.
Writers note: The hunt occurred again during the winter of 2018-2019, and over a dozen deer were killed.
What role does education play in combatting Lyme?
I think the most important thing is education. And it’s really hard to educate people, but I think patients themselves are becoming more educated about the signs and symptoms of Lyme. You can go to the internet and get that information—you can go to the Centers for Disease Control site. You can come to a public program. I’ve had many public programs here on Swan’s Island over the years with different presenters. The people that generally come to the programs I’ve had over the years are people who have some familiarity with Lyme—they’ve either had it, someone in their family has been diagnosed, or they just really want to learn.
What impact has this had on the summer community?
Because we’re a community with a lot of people from away visiting in the summer, people from Nebraska, Florida, California—they could be from anywhere. They don’t have Lyme disease where they live at home. So, they come to Swan’s Island or any island, and what’s one of the things they want to do? Go hiking. Be outdoors. Maybe they live in the city where they come from—and here’s all this beautiful nature—so they go out, do their thing, and have no knowledge of Lyme disease, ticks, or tickborne diseases. Then they leave the island, go home, become sick, and they go to their primary care doctor who knows nothing about Lyme disease.
I’ll give you a story: I have a friend who comes from the Washington DC area with his family. He was here for a couple weeks, and they’re an outdoors family. They went back home, and he called me up and said, “Donna I’ve been so sick since I left the island. Getting back to Washington DC, I had the worst headache ever. I’ve been to my doctor. I had this terrible rash… my doctor asked me to contact you and ask if you had any knowledge of spider bites. I said, “Send me a picture of the rash.” It was the classic bullseye rash, but his doctor was treating him on 10 days of antibiotics for spider bites because she didn’t know what it was. I actually put his physician in Washington DC in contact with one of our physicians who comes to the clinic on Swan’s Island to go over the protocol on how we’re treating patients here. He went on a longer course of antibiotics, and he got well again. He has no lingering effects of it. He’s a really healthy guy, a runner, a retired military guy, and here he was in DC as sick as could be.
What can be done to make sure that doesn’t happen?
One of the things I think people don’t really want to do is: if you have a rental house, put literature in the rental house. Make people aware. Yeah it might scare some people off, and I think that has happened before. We have a music festival that’s been going on for 25 years, and last year some of the musicians decided not to come. Some had smaller kids and they just didn’t want to put themselves at risk to come out here.
I think if we can’t get a handle on it, it will end up affecting real estate prices out here and also tourism. Just think about this: if you’re planning a week long vacation would you go to a place that was infested with rattle snakes? Well hell no! So are you going to come to a place that has ticks and tickborne diseases?
What about pesticide use?
I have seen pest control companies out here, and I really think it’s something that town governments should be looking into. Because we don’t know—I don’t know—so I’m sure others here don’t really know what products these pest control companies are using. Are these products washing into the water? Is this harmful to clamming? Mussels? Lobsters? Anybody in the fishing industry would be very wary of having anything like that sprayed that could get into the watershed… So I think it’s community problem that I’m seeing more and more of the modern pest company guy driving off the ferry boat—I don’t know where he’s going or what he’s spraying.
So what can someone do?
Be aware there are things you can do to protect yourself. There are sprays you can put on. There are natural products you can put on if you don’t want to use a DEET product. Spray it on the bottom of your pants, tuck your pant legs into your socks, wear light colored clothes. If you’ve been out in a heavily wooded area, go back home and check yourself over. I’ve lived here for almost 20 years now, and I have only had a tick embedded in me twice. Two times in 20 years—I’m outside all the time. I used to do a lot of mowing and weed whacking in tall grass. Hiking through the woods. I have dogs that could bring ticks in. I just think you really need to be aware. Stay on top of it.
The interview above has been edited for length and clarity.