Gillian Graham, staff writer
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is advising Mainers to be aware of deer ticks and Lyme disease following a record number of cases of the bacterial infection last year.
Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the state and health officials believe the number of cases will increase as the weather gets warmer. The disease is now considered endemic in Maine because it has been recorded in every county.
There were 1,111 cases of Lyme disease reported statewide in 2012, a record high and an increase of about 100 cases over the previous year.
“We feel that it’s a public health concern because the numbers are increasing and it has gradually moved up toward the Bangor area,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC.
Areas south of Bangor — especially along the coast — have the highest rate of infected ticks in the state. Lyme disease is named for the coastal Connecticut town where it was first discovered in 1975.
The national rate for Lyme disease infection in 2012 was 10.6 cases per 100,000 people. In Maine, the rate was 83.7 cases per 100,000 people. Lyme has been recorded in 13 states, primarily in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
Those infected often develop a fever, headache and fatigue, and sometimes a tell-tale rash that looks like a bull’s eye centered on the tick bite. Lyme disease is most common in school-age children, middle-age adults and adults over the age of 65. Most infections occur during the summer.
Most people recover with antibiotics, although some symptoms can persist. If left untreated, the infection can cause arthritis or spread to the heart and nervous system.
Because there is no vaccine for Lyme disease for humans, Pinette said, “education, prevention and early treatment are paramount to decrease the number of people affected.”
Dr. Harry Braeuer, a veterinarian at Cape Veterinary Clinic in South Portland, said prevention also is key to protecting dogs from the disease, which is carried by deer ticks that can be so small they’re difficult to spot. Most dogs can be effectively treated for the disease because a vaccine is available.
Braeuer said he sees several dogs test positive for Lyme disease each week at the clinic, but some of those positives indicate exposure not infection.
“It sure seems like I’m seeing more (cases) now than 10 years ago,” Braeuer said. “A lot of dog owners say they also have been exposed or know someone who has. It is kind of frightening.”
Braeuer recommends people protect their dogs with the vaccine and a topical repellent, and urges people to check their pets for ticks after being outside.
He said it is “very rare” for cats and horses to contract the disease.
The CDC warns that there also are other diseases carried by ticks that have been recorded in Maine, such as babesiosis, a potentially serious malaria-like infection, and anaplasmosis, which can cause flu-like symptoms and also may be serious.
In 2012, health care providers reported 52 cases of anaplasmosis and 10 cases of babesiosis. No case of either disease has been reported yet this year.
According to the CDC, people bitten by a tick should: remove the tick properly, ideally using tweezers or a tick spoon; identify the tick and engorgement level, or length of time tick was attached; clean the area around the bite and watch for signs and symptoms for 30 days.