Although frost still covers the ground some mornings, Island boards of health already have their focus turned towards summer and tick season.
At last week’s All-Island Selectmen’s meeting, Tisbury health commissioner Michael Loberg and Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole presented their annual year-end report for the Tick-Borne Illness Reduction Initiative, a five-year study funded by a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The study has just completed its second year.
The initial goal of the study was to reduce incidents and severity of tick diseases on-Island.
“Our mission hasn’t changed,” Mr. Loberg said, adding that so far the study has shown incidences to be “much higher than I thought it was two years ago.” A graph denoting patients treated with doxycyline — the prescription drug used to treat Lyme disease — showed a steady increase in numbers from 2010 to June 2012 (numbers were not yet available for the remainder of the year). In 2011, the most recent full year available, there were 1747 unique patients requesting doxycyline prescriptions. Peak months for doxy treatment were May, June, July, August and November. The peak in November is due to deer hunting season, Mr. Loberg said. In 2010 there were 1563 unique patients.
Part of the tick initiative is developing a plan for disease control, which includes managing deer tick host sites of both the plant and animal variety. During the first year of the study the group worked on Chappaquiddick to promote proper landscape management such as making yards less hospitable to ticks by reducing their habitat. This year the initiative expanded to Chilmark, inspecting properties on North road. Deer ticks were found in both locations.
The large deer population on Martha’s Vineyard plays a role as host and breeding ground to ticks. The first step in determining how best to manage deer is to determine the actual size of the herd. In January Thomas Millette, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, undertook an aerial survey of the Vineyard using thermal imaging and color photography to document the deer population on the Island and where they congregate. Mr. Millette is still analyzing the data, Mr. Poole said, but preliminary results indicate that there are as many as 53 deer per square mile on Martha’s Vineyard, with minimum numbers ranging from 36 to 43 deer per square mile. According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have the highest concentrations of deer in the state. Northwestern Massachusetts, by comparison, has about 10 deer per square mile.
“So the question is, that I don’t have the answer to, ‘Is a deer in the state forest, smack in the middle of all that scrub oak, the same to us as a deer that browses on the edge of your yard every day?’” Mr. Poole said in a later interview on Tuesday. The TBI reduction initiative also hopes to confer with a deer biologist regarding whether numbers and locations determined in the winter could be the same as those in peak tick season. Thermal imaging can only be done when it is cold enough for the warm-blooded deer to show up against snow.
“The idea was that [the initiative] was going to be entirely data-driven,” Mr. Poole said. “So it’s a little bit slow and deliberate.”
Disease control is one of two prongs in the overall study, the other being medical education. At the All-Island Selectmen’s Meeting, Mr. Loberg addressed related accomplishments from 2012. Outreach into student education and the creation of programs for students aged 5, 8, 11 and 15 were foremost. In 2013, Mr. Loberg said, the group planned to create student-to-student videos so that older children could help with the education process. These would include videos directed towards parents and materials translated into Portuguese.
Education efforts last year also included a series of eight videos available on the Martha’s Vineyard Board of Health website and presentations before Island groups from the Rotary Club to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Goals for the upcoming grant cycle include creating materials specifically for summer visitors and summer physicians.
And the initiative is looking deeper into the future to the end of the five-year grant period. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Loberg spoke to the importance of town funding in addition to hospital funding, and of tick-borne illness as a regional issue.
“[Lyme] is a disease that does blow mindlessly across town borders, and we shouldn’t let one area be a refuge,” he said.