Monday, March 24, 2008

CONNECTICUT OPINION: Reducing Deer Population Key to Fighting Lyme Disease

Winston Churchill famously remarked to Franklin D. Roosevelt that Hitler's war ought to be called "The Unnecessary War" because responsible governments of the democracies could so easily have prevented it, had they acted in time. Connecticut's decades-old Lyme disease epidemic can be accurately called "The Unnecessary Epidemic" because it too could have been nipped in the bud.

From 1996 to 2006 there have been 29,000 reported cases of Lyme in Connecticut, the majority among children and many with tragic, long-term effects. A great many more cases go unreported or are misdiagnosed. A more realistic number of cases is estimated by some to be 29,000 every year.

The root cause of Connecticut's epidemic is an unnatural, environmentally destructive population explosion of deer. The deer are not infected with the disease themselves, but they feed, transport and disperse the deer ticks that pass it on to humans. Just one tick-infested deer can facilitate the delivery of about 1 million deer tick eggs that it scatters as it walks through our backyards, parks, playgrounds, meadows and playing fields. The eggs hatch and turn into ticks that then infect their victims.

Deer numbers have gone from an estimated 12 (yes, you read that correctly, 12) in 1896 to approximately 150,000 today. Neither this number, nor the resulting Lyme epidemic, needs to continue any longer. It started in Connecticut; it can end here.

What to do? Controlling the deer population, which means culling the herd, has ended Lyme epidemics in parts of three New England states — Great Island, a peninsula on Cape Cod; Monhegan Island in Maine; and Mumford Cove in Groton. No other method has reduced Lyme case numbers, either in New England or elsewhere.

When deer populations are reduced to around 10 per square mile, the deer ticks that spread Lyme and other diseases become locally extinct. It takes a lot of deer to keep the tick species reproducing successfully in an area. But when there are no ticks left, there is no Lyme disease.

Much of the work that led to this understanding was done here by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, funded by the state. We now need a policy to let people know about this research and why it should lead to legislation to control the deer population.

The Connecticut Coalition to Eradicate Lyme Disease was recently formed for just this reason. It is supported by the Connecticut Audubon Society, the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, seven of Connecticut's Regional Councils of Government representing more than 70 towns, plus emergency physicians, pediatricians, Lyme disease task forces, veterinarians and many others.

But what may seem obvious to most people is not so to others. Some believe that ticks do not need large numbers of deer for survival, but can live just as well on other animals. Others claim that deer management only works on islands; or that it doesn't work at all and tick numbers go up instead of down when deer numbers decline.

Even more far-fetched is the notion that all the white-footed mice, mammals and songbirds in Connecticut would have to be killed to end Lyme disease. None of this is true. The towns that are now free of their epidemics liberated themselves by controlling deer numbers, nothing else. And the animals and birds are all thriving and do not sustain the deer tick populations.

According to a recent joint publication of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Yale University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, current attempts at prevention of Lyme disease through personal protection such as inspecting one's body for ticks and using tick-killing chemicals on one's property were "not found to be an effective strategy to prevent Lyme disease." These measures failed to stop the growth or spread of the Lyme disease epidemic.

This is why we need a reliable source of information, promulgated by the state Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control. We can then develop a strategy based upon the work of our research scientists with 25 years of experience in Connecticut.

As the good news and its implications become more widely known, the next steps should include a public airing of the alternatives that confront us: Do we act now to control deer numbers and the incidence of Lyme disease? Or do we let both continue to rise inexorably?

It is to be hoped that Gov. M. Jodi Rell and state legislators will lead new statewide efforts to bring an end to Lyme disease. House Bill 5852, sponsored by the Environment Committee, is currently under review in Hartford to address the issue, but it needs the support of citizens and concerned legislators.



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