COVID-19 has overshadowed many health conversations this year, including tick-borne illnesses on Martha’s Vineyard, which are still a big problem, and have been getting worse over the course of five years with the emergence of the lone star tick population, according to Island biologist Richard Johnson.
“This is pretty much the first year I started checking more and finding more,” Ivo Kipre said, a first-time visitor to Chappaquiddick and frequent visitor to Aquinnah.
During a phone interview, Johnson says the lone star tick has been migrating to the north and inundating various places across the Northeast, with the Southern tick settling down in Aquinnah and Chappaquiddick. Johnson believes the lone star ticks are hitching a ride on birds.
Johnson said for the last year, he has been finding lone star ticks in every resident’s yard he surveyed on Chappaquiddick and Aquinnah. The lone star tick likes dry pine areas, and is more aggressive than the deer tick because the lone star ticks are stimulated by sources of carbon dioxide, with humans being an acceptable source of food. Deer ticks will hang around in dead leaves and underbrush waiting to hitch a ride on animals, mostly deer, or humans.
Last summer, the annual Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) meeting held at the Chappaquiddick Community Center included a brief lecture on ticks by Johnson. Interested in tackling the issue, Alan Feldman pulled Johnson aside to discuss the tick problem on Chappaquiddick and possible solutions to defend the community against, and eventually rid it from, tick-borne illness. Johnson recommended an augmentation for hunting on Chappaquiddick Island.
The Environmental Committee of CIA formed in September 2019, with two subcommittees, one focused on sea-level rise, chaired by Bruce Fowle, and curbing the tick population on Chappaquiddick, with Feldman as the chairman of the tick subcommittee.
The two charges of the tick committee are to make residents on Chappaquiddick Island aware of the tick problem, especially the lone star ticks, and bring in experts on ticks like Johnson and Sam Telford, a professor of infectious diseases at Tufts University who has advocated for more research on the lone star.
The ticks are getting worse because of the warming climate and more suburbanization, according to an article published in The Daily Climate in 2014. Martha’s Vineyard has a higher deer population, because there are no deer predators on the Island, such as coyotes.
Feldman said during an interview with The Times, the deer population on Chappaquiddick is 30 to 40 per square mile, and models suggest that you have to reduce the population to 10 to 12 per square mile to reduce the deer tick population.
“We just have to be the matchmaker to pair up the hunters and the property owners,” Feldman said.
Part of Feldman’s plan to curb the deer and lone star ticks is to get residents of Chappaquiddick to sign a release to hunters to hunt deer on their property in the next hunting season, primarily for hunters with bows. The extra deer meat will go into Island Grown Initiative’s venison program; IGI has recently merged with the Island Food Pantry. Also, the Environment Committee of CIA has released a pamphlet educating residents on how to avoid and prevent ticks with the use of tick repellent with ingredients like permethrin, and spray it on clothing.
Although Feldman suggests using insecticide, he is aware of the negative side effects of using too much. The insecticide can run off into the water and kill fish eggs, and Johnson says it also reduces the insect population, which is a food source for birds.
The lone star ticks get their name from the white dot on adult female backs. When bitten, some lone star ticks carry a sugar called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal), causing some people to develop an allergic reaction to red meat.
“I know several people on the Island [who have the alpha-gal] allergy, and it can be a serious situation,” Feldman said. “Not just the fact the people who like red meat do not want to be allergic to it, and it can be a life-threatening allergy.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, the allergic reaction can manifest as eczema, stomach pain, and in the worst cases, food-induced anaphylaxis, with the reaction happening several hours after eating red meat. An epinephrine injector is needed for treatment.
“I have been doing this for 10 years at a part-time basis; we are hoping someone takes over and spearheads this going forward,” Johnson said.
Feldman would like to see more research done on the tick population by giving Johnson more money to hire an intern for the summer to help with his research, to have more accurate information on how bad tick-borne illnesses are getting on the island. Also, Johnson and Telford have advocated for a tick czar on Martha’s Vineyard.
Feldman worries there will be an increase in the number of people getting sick with tick-borne illnesses like Lyme, alpha-gal syndrome, or in rare cases, Powassan virus. Lyme disease has antibiotic treatments like doxycycline, but alpha-gal is an allergic reaction, and Powassan is a virus, meaning antibiotics don’t work.
For the next decade, the tick subcommittee’s goal is to educate, curb, and eventually manage the lone star and deer tick population to controllable levels, while advocating for more funds for Johnson’s research through donations to CIA, and asking the town of Edgartown to spend more money toward combating the ticks.
CIA is a nonprofit organization founded in 1952 for year-round and seasonal residents interested in issues involving Chappaquiddick Island. Donations and $50 membership fees go into the Chappy Fund. More information is on the CIA’s website at chappaquiddickislandassociation.org.