We held a Q&A live chat for with Kristen Lombardi in our Environmental Health Facebook group last week to dive deeper into her investigation into how a warming climate affects the spread of disease-bearing ticks in the United States, particularly in Maine and northeastern states. Here's a summary of that conversation.
Q: Can you tell us what made you want to pursue this particular story looking at the effect of climate change on tick-borne illnesses?
A: This piece was conceived as the first story in a series on the human health impacts of climate change. I began to hear about the health effects of climate change from doctors or nurses or other health-care professionals last year, and, at first, I did a kind of double-take when hearing such talk. I had often read about climate change and its environmental impacts (rising sea levels, rising temperatures, intensifying hurricanes) but not many stories had made the connection between those environmental impacts and their impacts to our health, and our kids' health.
I began to ask doctors about it and they mentioned that more and more physicians and health-care professionals were sounding the alarm. They pointed me to a 2016 federal report that really laid out the health impacts of climate change manifesting themselves today and in the future in this country. I mention that report in this piece.
One of the health impacts is vector-borne diseases, including diseases caused by ticks and mosquitoes. I started looking at all vector-borne diseases but eventually gravitated toward tick-borne diseases. Scientists told me that of all infectious diseases, those caused by bites from mosquitoes, ticks and other cold-blooded insects are the most climate sensitive. Their range and distribution can be altered by just the slightest changes in temperatures.
Q: The story highlights Maine as a case study of this phenomenon. Can you talk about what was most revealing or significant in your reporting about what's been happening in Maine relating to ticks?
A: For me, I started this piece by looking at Lyme and its link to climate change more broadly. I spoke with the CDC and other academic researchers who have been examining the influence of rising temperatures on the spread of Lyme first and almost all of them pointed to Maine as a dramatic example of this climate disease connection.
As my piece points out, there are other factors that drive the disease but scientists who have studied this link agree that climate is the primary driver in Lyme's movement north. If you ask the scientists what constitutes the disease's "northern margins," they will name such states as Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern New York, New Hampshire and Vermont--states or northern areas of states where deer ticks and Lyme disease barely registered back in the 1990s, when the federal CDC began collecting Lyme data.
Most of those scientists note that Maine is about as north as you can get in this country and the changes in the distribution and range of the deer tick and incidence of Lyme disease are striking. Hearing this from the scientists I began looking at Maine's Lyme incidence rate and it is skyrocketing. Federal data show Lyme disease cases have increased 20 fold. The state now leads the country in its incidence rate per capita.