In the Battle Against Ticks and Lyme Disease, Scientists Look to the Skies
As we head into the Maine outdoors this summer, the all-too-familiar warnings about how to avoid ticks reverberate in many of our heads.
Stay on the trail. Steer clear of wooded and brushy areas where ticks congregate.
But while most of us take pains to dodge the eight-legged pests, Chuck Lubelczyk heads straight for them.
As a field biologist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s Lyme and Vector-Borne Disease Laboratory, he studies the spread of diseases carried by ticks, as well as by mosquitoes. That means venturing out into the fields, forests and coastlines of Maine to collect the bugs and evaluate where they pose the most risk to humans.
On a recent June day, Lubelczyk trudged into the greenery of the Wells Reserve, a 2,250-acre spread in York County headquartered at a restored saltwater farm. He partnered with researchers from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland to collect ticks from creatures less often associated with them: birds.
The team, assisted by several interns, set up wide nets to ensnare the birds as they flew through the area. They then delicately extricated them, tucked the birds into breathable collection bags, and toted them to a shady picnic table for easier handling. Using tweezers, the team plucked off each tick — typically feasting around the birds’ eyes, bills, and throats — and preserved the bugs for later testing at the lab.
Lubelczyk held up a vial containing at least 50 tiny nymphal deer ticks swirling in a preservative solution. They’d been tweezed off a single bird, a towhee, that morning.
Once free of ticks, the birds were then safely released to continue on their way.
While mice, chipmunks and deer get most of the attention as hosts for ticks, “Not a lot of people talk about the bird issue,” he said. “They’re understudied in a big way, I think. They do have a real role to play.”
Ticks are an annoyance to birds, but they don’t transmit disease to them or slowly and lethally drain them of blood, as researchers have seen among moose calves in Maine. But birds facilitate the spread of ticks, picking them up in Maryland, Connecticut and other eastern states as they fly north in the spring, Lubelczyk explained.
“As they’re migrating, they’re either dropping the ticks off as they fly or when they land. They’re kind of seeding them along migration patterns.”
By tracking the birds and the ticks they carry, researchers hope to predict where Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are most likely to accelerate. Lyme is now present in every county in the state, after hitting a record of 1,488 cases in 2016, but ticks are just getting established in areas such as Aroostook and Washington counties, Lubelczyk said.
Along with Lyme, Lubelczyk tested the ticks for other two other emerging diseases, anaplasmosis and the rare but potentially devastating Powassan virus. Powassan, carried by both the deer tick and the groundhog or woodchuck tick, recently sickened two people in midcoast Maine, following the death in 2013 of a Rockland-area woman.
A recent survey Lubelczyk led found the virus in ticks crawling around southern Maine, Augusta and on Swan’s Island in Hancock County.
In the modest Scarborough lab, medical entomologist Rebecca Robich furthered the findings of that survey. Clad in a white coat and blue gloves, she cloned a tiny band of the Powassan virus’ inactivated RNA, using a sample derived from the ticks that tested positive in the survey. Robich began the work, designed to confirm the earlier test results, last winter.
She expects to know conclusively within the next month what percentage of the sampled ticks were infected with Powassan, she said.
“We’re this close to finishing,” Robich said.
Ticks have become so prevalent in Maine that Lubelcyzk and his colleagues are increasingly called upon to educate the public about the health risks the arachnids pose. That includes speaking at community forums, town meetings, garden clubs and even to groups of employees.
“They’re widespread enough now that DOT, CMP, people like that are bumping into them on a regular basis,” he said. “Even people like law enforcement. The warden service, regular police with police dogs, they’re exposed.”
Their outreach also includes plenty of phone calls to the lab, fielded by its small staff of four, not counting summer interns.
“If somebody calls, we never really turn them down,” he said.
Many people don’t realize that the lab no longer identifies ticks for the public, Lubelczyk said. Now located in Scarborough along with MMC’s medical and psychiatric research centers, the lab formerly operated in South Portland, where it identified a tick’s species for anyone who walked in the door or mailed a sample. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono has since taken over that service (it does not test ticks for disease).
“It’s very hard to say no to someone when they’re really frantic because they found a tick on themselves, or their child, or even their pet,” he said. “And they’re sitting out in the parking lot.”
So far this season, the lab has fielded numerous calls from worried residents only to discover after viewing a photograph that the tick in question is a dog tick, not a deer tick. Maine is home to 15 species of ticks, and the dog tick is not among those that transmit disease to humans, at least in this region.
Through its outreach work, the lab has also found itself at the center of debates about how to manage ticks. Lubelczyk recalled a town forum on Long Island a couple of years ago that grew tense as residents discussed the use of pesticides.
“As soon as the topic of any kind of spray was brought up, not even by us, by somebody else, the fishing community was dead set against it,” he said. “Understandably, they’re worried about the stock. It really makes that difficult because you start to have divisions in how to control the ticks.”
The lab’s research on the role of birds in spreading tick-borne disease is similarly delicate, because many birds are under threat ecologically, Lubelczyk said.
“No one really cares if you try to target mice. Birds are federally protected in a lot of cases,” he said.
That other biting pest
Educating the public represents a large part of the lab’s mission but only a small part of its budget. Its outreach work is funded largely through small grants from foundations, Lubelczyk said.
Most of its research funding is targeted toward mosquitoes rather than ticks, boosted by the federal government’s initiative to combat the Zika virus, he said. While Zika hasn’t appeared in Maine, warming temperatures due to future climate change could make the state habitable for one of the mosquito species that carries it.
Lubelczyk explained this as he stood in the lab’s testing area, next to a large freezer storing petri dishes packed with frozen mosquitoes. A piece of yellow tape affixed to the door warned, “Not for food.”
While Lyme is far more prevalent, diseases carried by mosquitoes, such as West Nile virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, can lead to more acute illness. Both can cause inflammation of the brain and other serious complications.
Funding for tick research is generally less reliable, Lubelczyk said. The recent Powassan survey, for example, was funded by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, which collects money through the sale of instant scratch lottery tickets.
A continuing threat
The lab’s role in helping to prevent tick-borne diseases has only grown as the tick population and the diseases they carry spread. The incidence of Lyme in Maine is among the highest rates in the country, averaging 82.5 cases per 100,000 people between 2013 and 2015.
Anaplasmosis and babesiosis are less common but becoming increasingly worrisome.
Lubelczyk understands the illnesses on both a professional and personal level. He contracted Lyme several years ago, after a deer tick latched onto him while he made a pitstop on the way home from work one steamy July day, he said. He had just changed into shorts and sandals and jumped out of his car for 30 seconds to hang a mosquito trap in Wells, he recalled.
A day and a half later, he spotted the tick bite. After a round of antibiotics, he recovered, Lubelczyk said.
His usual garb for field work includes long sleeves and pants treated with permethrin, along with gaiters over his boots.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said, wincing. “We always talk about wearing appropriate clothing.”
This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.