In August, the Vineyard Gazette conducted a survey to determine how citizens viewed the threat of tick-borne diseases on our Island and what steps should be taken to diminish the threat of this significant medical problem. The results were very positive and the Gazette should be applauded for constructing and conducting this poll.

The results of this survey found that tick–borne diseases were considered to be a serious medical issue for the Island and a threat to our way of life. The poll also indicated that an action plan was required, with help from our local hunters, and that many local hunters were willing to assist in addressing this medical scourge by reducing the size of the deer herd on the Island.

It will take some time for the state and town authorities to piece together practical solutions together with the all-Island boards of health. Meanwhile, with the start of this season’s hunting season, we should do all we can to encourage local hunters to help in this medical problem by increasing, wherever possible, the number of deer taken.

When I listened to a forum on citizens concerns and questions run by a panel of experts from the medical and scientific community under the auspices of the Gazette and the Tick-Borne Illness Prevention Program, I was struck by the passion of all present and the immediacy required to tackle this serious challenge to the Island’s health.

It has been pointed out in several articles published in Island papers that the infestation of deer ticks is responsible for transmission of three of the known major illnesses borne by these insects Lyme disease, babesia, and anaplasmosis. Recently, another public health concern has also been identified: transmission of babesia and anaplasmosis from blood transfusion. All blood in our neighboring state of Rhode Island, and some blood (if requested), in our state of Massachusetts, is being screened for the presence of babesia.

These articles draw attention to the fact that the measurements of the actual number of cases of Lyme disease, babesia and anaplasmosis cannot be truly ascertained. Moreover, the actual size of the deer herd can’t be accurately assessed, and the extent of the spread of these tick–borne diseases via other smaller animal species be approximated. Lastly, it is difficult to model the actual effects of reducing the size of the deer herd on Martha’s Vineyard and how much the reduction will have on lowering of the number of ticks carrying these potentially lethal diseases on this Island.

As has been pointed out by the articles written by Dick Johnson, a leading expert in the life cycles of deer ticks and the diseases borne by the varieties of ticks, we will not have the luxury of time to assemble and study the answers to these issues. However, studies supporting the deer herd reduction have been recently published by Dr. Kirby Stafford, chief scientist and state entomologist in Connecticut. Those studies show that significant reductions in the deer herd strongly correlate with a reduction in number of deer ticks and the number of recorded cases of tick-borne diseases. Thus, reducing the deer herd, the larger animals that are essential in the life cycle of the deer tick and other ticks — offers the greatest chance for reducing the incidence of these diseases.

There are estimates of approximately 4,000 deer on Martha’s Vineyard, representing a population of upwards of 40 deer per square mile of wooded habitat. All the scientific publications emphasize that to be an effective remedy, the deer population needs to be drastically reduced to between eight to 10 deer per square mile, since the results upon number of deer ticks is not linear with the number of deer removed. As alarming and unwelcome this target may sound, these are the facts based on the best science available.

From my perspective the community should support a plan that has the greatest possibility of success. Waiting and thinking that there may be alternative solutions awaiting us is just not an option. We have to act now and offer support for the board of health and do the best for their community.

Dr. David J. Morris, is emeritus professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Alpert Brown University School of Medicine. He is a longtime homeowner in Vineyard Haven.