Although Lyme disease is a prevalent disorder all over America, and has turned up cases in every mainland state, the North East is particularly associated with Lyme – and with good reason: it’s a hotbed of deer ticks, the insects that are the sole transmitters of Lyme-inducing bacteria. The disease is becoming something of an epidemic as it’s so difficult to treat properly and diagnose, and while it was previously thought that you could only contract Lyme by visiting certain states, it’s now known that you can contract it anywhere in the U.S., making it all the more dangerous for citizens everywhere. On top of that, the “North East exclusivity” myth makes it harder for doctors in other parts of the country to diagnose Lyme, as they don’t consider it when approaching the symptoms. Despite this, there’s no smoke without fire; a recent poll put Maine as the number one worst state for Lyme disease.
The report was conducted by a site called 24/7 Wall Street, and took into account a large amount of data gathered from the CDC on Lyme cases across the country. Analyzing statistics from 2016, results showed that Maine’s incidence of Lyme disease is 86.4 per 100,000 residents, which is by far the highest of any state. The second highest was nearby neighbor Vermont, which turned up 78.1 per 100,000, a startlingly lower statistic than Maine. But why are the numbers so high, and why exactly is Maine ranked the worst state in the country for Lyme? The answers are multi-faceted, and have as much to do with Maine’s geography as they have to do with the ticks themselves.
The North East is largely associated with Lyme because it was discovered there in 1975. Despite Maine holding the dubious honor of being worst-afflicted Lyme state in 2018, it was actually the town of Old Lyme in Connecticut that held the key to christening the debilitating disorder 43 years ago. The climate of the North Eastern states is why Lyme managed to become so prevalent there; the definitive seasons provided the perfect circumstances for ticks to proliferate, while the copious rural topography allowed them to spread out across the states.
With its high rural population percentage, Maine’s citizens have a higher risk of becoming infected with Lyme disease.
Maine has a rural population percentage of over 60%, which means that its citizens are potentially coming into contact with offending ticks every day. On top of that, the state has a high percentage of physically active adults, making it easier for ticks to attach themselves to a host as they walk through grassy and wooded areas. Ticks cannot fly or jump, despite the myths surrounding them; instead, they wait on the tips of grass and trees with their hooked legs outstretched, in a technique known as “questing”. Then they simply wait and attach themselves to anything that brushes up against them, be it animal or human. This basic-sounding technique is actually remarkably effective at consigning ticks to their hosts (or vice versa), and it’s one of the main reasons why ticks are able to spread so successfully in predominantly rural states like Maine.
Global warming is also playing a big part in the spread of Lyme disease, as it’s elongating the tick season out beyond its usual boundaries. Ticks don’t study calendars and decide when and where they’re going to set up shop; they respond to temperature, so if it suits them to come out in April and stay until late September, they’ll do that. This increase in temperature is a large part of why Lyme has spread outside the North Eastern states, and is proving to be a developing threat to Americans all over the country. Also, if the weather stays better for longer, people are likely going to be outdoors for longer periods of time, increasing their chances of being exposed to dangerous ticks. It is estimated that one in three ticks in Maine carry Lyme, which is a further reason why infection is so common.
Hiking and other outdoor activities in Maine present a higher risk of tick bites and Lyme infection.
The cases of Lyme disease have been increasing exponentially in Maine, as indeed they have all over the country, year after year in the 21st century. Although this may make for alarming statistical reading, it might actually not be as ominous as it sounds. When it comes to Lyme, we’re still playing catch-up a lot of the time, and informing both normal citizens and medical professionals about the risks that Lyme poses is an ongoing struggle. However, we are making progress, and that progress is reflected in the statistics. A large part of the reason that the numbers are continually increasing is that patients and doctors are increasingly recognizing and diagnosing Lyme, leading to a higher prevalence of certified cases.
So whether it’s Maine or anywhere else in the country, the battle against Lyme continues unabated. The statistics might seem intimidating, but improved visibility is a victory for patients and doctors everywhere.