Monday, August 22, 2016

Martha's Vineyard tick politics

Ticks and tick-borne illnesses are big concerns around this island and in this town that I'm visiting.

Along with other tick-borne diseases, Lyme is endemic to the region, with Massachusetts having among the highest rates in the country — 3,830 confirmed cases in 2014, down from 4,028 in 2009. Island towns have among the highest rates in the state, with Chilmark topping the list. And the actual numbers could be much higher, in part because the only official diagnosis — a red bull’s-eye rash at the point of infection — often doesn’t appear, and lab tests may come back negative either way.

Because New England boasts a culture of popular political participation, ticks and their ill effects have become political issues as well.

Legislators from across the state overcame Republican Governor Charlie Baker's veto in July, enacting a measure almost unanimously which requires insurers to cover long term treatments for Lyme disease. Baker, a former health insurance executive, belongs to a medical camp that questions the science behind long term treatment with antibiotics. But constituents demanded action and won this.

Perhaps more generally usefully, the Martha's Vineyard Boards of Health have been studying the tick situation. The Island’s unofficial tick czar, biologist Richard Johnson, has been making the rounds this summer, encouraging practical steps to avoid bites; permethrin-soaked clothing, tucking pants into socks, and careful self inspection rank high.

But he is also gently trying to prepare the way for an intervention guaranteed to set off a political kerfuffle. The life cycle of ticks (Martha's Vineyard hosts three disease bearing varieties) requires eggs to hatch as nymphs, then feeding on the blood of rodents and passing deer, before maturing in the leaf cover of forests over a winter, and then feasting on any large passing mammal, such as an occasional human but more often, again, on deer. Deer don't get tick-borne illnesses, but people do. The study Johnson works with suggests the way to reduce the tick danger is clear cut: Martha's Vineyard needs to cull the deer population.

Johnson describes the island as a perfect human-created deer breeding habitat; thickly forested areas are gone, while every new home creates open clearings where deer like to feed. Where once the island supported less than a thousand deer, a new survey suggests today there are 5000.

So how to reduce the deer numbers? All Johnson's suggestions are potentially politically fraught.
  • Extend legal deer hunting and bring in experienced hunters.
  • Allow hunting on more private land.
  • And legalize and facilitate distribution of venison to Island food pantries.
Can Island towns agree to such measures which require adjustments to their current culture? It will probably take a lot of discussion, but most everyone understands the risks of the endemic tick-borne illnesses. Fortunately, that New England institution, the town meeting, thrives here, so the talking will be intense.
I don't think anyone here is suggesting what Moises Velasquez-Manoff proposed in the NY Times: bring back cougars! The Island has had an occasional coyote sighting, but has as yet no established, deer-reducing, population of these wild carnivores. If they arrived, farmers with livestock would be up in arms.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails