There is broad consensus now that disease-carrying ticks constitute a major public health threat on Martha’s Vineyard. The question is: what is to be done?

A five-year grant to the Island boards of health to do field research and public education is coming to an end this fall, with no clear indication about how this important work will be continued. And while there is abundant information about ticks and tick-borne illness on the boards of health website at, awareness and prevention is only part of the solution.

A survey conducted last month by the Gazette to gauge community attitudes about the tick problem found that Islanders want bold action to eliminate ticks, up to and including a major reduction in the deer herd. And biologist Richard Johnson, the Island’s tick expert, agreed reluctantly this week that killing deer may be the best short-term hope of getting ticks under control.

“I’ve spent my life protecting wildlife. I like the deer; they are beautiful and I hate to stand here and say, we’ve got to kill the deer,” he said, summing up a common view. “There is so much I’d like to know, and it may take awhile. But I don’t want to be here five years from now still be talking about how to reduce the deer.”

Mr. Johnson explained that deer ticks typically get their first blood meal from small mammals, especially white-footed mice. Employing so-called “tick tubes,” small devices containing cotton balls treated with the insecticide permethrin that the mice take to their nests, is one way to reduce tick populations in discrete geographic areas like yards. But mice are far too abundant, too widespread and reproduce far too rapidly for this approach to be effective on a large scale, he said.

Research now under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to genetically modify mice to be resistant to tick-borne illness may have merit, but is years away from reality. Similarly, efforts to bring back a Lyme disease vaccine or develop vaccines for other tick-borne illness are long-term solutions at best.

Reducing the population of deer, the primary source of blood meals for adult ticks, is the most efficient way to address the problem in the short term. The next step is for the boards of health to assess the current deer population and model how many they would need to take to make a difference. Only then comes the question of how it will be accomplished.

But Islandwide action is needed on every aspect of the tick problem, including a financial commitment to continue the excellent research and education efforts by the boards of health’s tick prevention program that will otherwise soon end, and a renewed effort at a standard protocol for medical treatment of tick bites. Dr. Michael Jacobs, a longtime Island physician, acknowledged frankly this week that getting Island doctors on the same page has been difficult, and several respondents to the Gazette’s survey told harrowing tales of misdiagnosed and untreated symptoms.

Martha’s Vineyard already has the dubious distinction of having among the highest per capita rates of tick-borne illness in the state and nation. With a new species of tick, the lone star variety, now moving in, the Island can ill afford to do nothing. Take advantage of the resources that exist on keeping yourself safe from tick-borne illness. Then let your town leaders, health agents and medical providers know it is time to take Islandwide action on ticks.