With tick-borne diseases at epidemic levels on the Vineyard and the cause of growing concern as a public health threat here, the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has launched a controlled study of Lyme disease and tularemia in the Island Wampanoag population.
The study is phase one in a three-year environmental health program for the tribe, made possible by a $360,000 grant from the CDC, based in Atlanta, Ga.
Researchers from the CDC Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases in Fort Collins, Colo., were on the Island for two days this week to take blood samples from tribal members, and it was tribal health director Ron MacLaren’s job to source volunteers — to get needles in arms, as it were.
There are incentives: all participants will receive a free pair of sneakers and a shopping coupon. And for those who turned up Tuesday night at the Wampanoag tribal building meeting room, Kristina Hook served soup and pasta bolognese from big pots with fresh bread and salad.
Family and friends ate, hobnobbed and listened as spokesmen from the CDC said a few words. Then, behind a curtain at one end of the room, there was a little after-dinner blood drawing.
Two CDC phlebotomists took more than 70 blood samples the first night and quizzed those giving blood about their outdoor habits that may have put them in contact with the illness: Do you do much work in the yard? In contact with animals?
The research will focus on prevention, identifying high risk habits and looking at ways to minimize exposure.
“It’s a good start,” said Emily Zielinski-Gutierrez, a behavioral scientist at the CDC.
But much depends on the survey results, she added, saying: “If 25 are positive, that’s a lot. If nobody’s positive then we don’t have anything.”
She said the confined population might help.
“It’s focused enough to drive some hypotheses,” she said. If the results are tangible it might lead to a second phase of research, focused on environmental samples such as filters on lawn mowers and animal carcasses.
The human samples collected this week, though, are more valuable in terms of working out the history of the disease in the tribe, she said, since antibodies will remain in the body for a long time.
Bret Stearns, natural resources director for the tribe, is a good example: he has had Lyme disease twice and shows up positive even if he no longer has the illness.
When he started exhibiting symptoms of Lyme disease for the second time, this summer, it coincided with a bout of cellulitis. So it took Mr. Stearns a few days to connect the symptoms of being “basically curled up, sweating in a fetal position” with the tick-borne illness.
Everyone has had Lyme disease who has worked in his department, he said.
“It’s part of the job,” he said, “we’re working out in the wetlands and cranberry bogs.”
But he also said it’s a universal health problem on the Island.
“These kids could be at home right now,” he said, gesturing at the younger volunteers, “but they’re here waiting to get stuck. The average person is concerned by this, everyone’s at risk.”
The 2005 Health Report of Martha’s Vineyard, a scientific study of the health of the adult population of the Vineyard, documented high rates of Lyme disease and drew a possible connection between Lyme disease and depression that researchers said deserved more study.
Mr. Stearns spearheaded the CDC research project, putting in a request last year that led to the study.
“It’s nice to see the tribe’s effectiveness as a federal agency at work,” he said, “it’s nice when it works.”
Mr. MacLaren watched the procession of volunteers as he explained his reasoning for prioritizing this research.
“A lot of time people ignore the symptoms and we’re not sure what to tell people to do,” he said. Of a survey taken last year, concerns about Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses were at the top of most tribal members’ environmental health issues.
Mr. MacLaren has run the health department since 2006; he was formerly chief executive officer of a public hospital in Cleveland, Tex. He encouraged volunteers to give two samples — one to the CDC and one to stay with the tribe for baseline medical information.
Mr. MacLaren said about 350 tribal members live on the Island, and he estimates that a third of those live in Aquinnah, while the rest are scattered throughout the other five towns. A second, slightly less well-attended session was held at the Tisbury senior center on Wednesday night.
Though the study is focused on the tribe, Mr. MacLaren said he is keen to share findings with the Island at large as well as with sister tribes around the country.
“I don’t think the CDC would have agreed to do it if it wasn’t relevant to everyone here,” he said.