Elias, Hajek team to capture complete picture of ticks, Lyme disease progression

Lyme disease artOlaf Hajek


While singular silver bullet solutions are sometimes sought to slow the progression of ticks and Lyme disease, Susan Elias says it’s important to see the full picture.

So the University of Maine Ph.D. candidate and vector-borne disease ecologist asked artist Olaf Hajek to help her convey the whole story with a painting.

“Our health is dependent on the health of the landscape,” says Elias, who is involved with the One Health Initiative — a worldwide program of scientists and others who believe “human, animal and ecological health are inextricably linked and need to be studied and managed holistically.”

She contacted Hajek to talk about the One Health Initiative as it connects with her dissertation: “Range expansion of the deer tick in Maine, USA, as related to climate, hosts, habitat, and land use.”

Elias is a fellow in UMaine’s National Science Foundation-funded Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) program focused on adaptation to abrupt climate change; IGERT and the Climate Change Institute funded the commissioned piece.

Hajek’s colorful painting titled “Ecology of Lyme” includes multiple interconnected factors associated with the infectious disease — Earth being altered by a changing climate, a deer, a mouse, invasive Japanese barberry, and three stages of deer ticks. The painting also includes a person infected with Lyme bacteria.

Preliminary 2016 data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicated an all-time high of 1,485 reported human cases of Lyme disease in the state, says Elias.

And Lyme disease — which can result in severe headaches, arthritis with acute joint pain and swelling, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, facial palsy, heart palpitations and short-term memory difficulty — 05 be under-reported ten-fold.

For a host of interrelated reasons, the risk of contracting the disease will continue to increase in Maine, says Elias.

One factor is the compression of winter. Spring comes earlier and fall is extended, says Elias, so adult deer ticks have a long time to feed. Each adult tick can lay as many as 2,000 eggs and the summer temperature has been conducive for more larvae to hatch and complete their life cycle statewide.

Land use decisions also make a difference, she says.

For instance, when forests are separated by roads, farms and subdivisions, the number of predators of white-footed mice declines. The mice that harbor the Lyme bacteria can then flourish.

And where invasive plants, including Japanese barberry and Oriental bittersweet, are allowed to take over forests, ideal habitat is created for deer ticks and their hosts.

The number of deer — which are hosts for the blacklegged tick (deer tick) Ixodes scapularis — also can increase in areas where hunting is not allowed.

Seeing the myriad of connections and taking a One Health approach are important, says Elias, as six out of 10 infectious diseases in people have wild animal origins.

Making the planet a healthier place will benefit all, she says.

Elias will deliver this message 09 . 15 at the Climate Change Institute’s fall retreat and Nov. 7 at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Denver, Colorado.

In the meantime, she advises: “Do your tick check.”