There’s no good way to reduce the number of black-legged ticks (the sort that spread Lyme and other diseases), despite fans of tick-loving animals like possums and guinea hens, or even robotic tick-snagging robots. The best bet is to target the mammals that carry them onto our property, notably deer and white-footed mice.

Shooting deer out of season is frowned on, and any homeowner knows that trying to eliminate mouse populations is almost impossible. But maybe we can make it so the animals stop carrying the ticks? That’s the thinking behind a plan to get mice to make their nests out of material soaked in tick-killing insecticide (I wrote about these “tick tubes” last year), but it doesn’t really work all that well.

OK then, let’s make it so that the animals styll carry the ticks but the ticks don’t carry the Lyme bacteria? That’s the thinking behind a plan to distribute kibble that’s tasty to mice, and contains an oral vaccine against Lyme.

Kirby Stafford, Connecticut’s state entomologist, knows only one surefire way to reduce tick populations enough to cut Lyme disease rates: killing deer. Otherwise, he says, “very little by itself really reduces tick numbers enough.” But in some Connecticut neighborhoods Stafford has been testing a new strategy, one he hopes might show real promise after years of stymied efforts to drive new Lyme infections down: a vaccine for mice.

That’s from a Scientific America story (read it here) about field tests. It also includes details about why there isn’t a human Lyme vaccine even though there’s a vaccine for dogs.

It’s a really interesting proposal that makes a lot of sense. The story ends on a pessimistic note, however:

There are likely two things standing in the way of the kibble vaccine becoming an ultimate solution for Lyme disease, Kilpatrick says. The first is scientific: The vaccine targets white-footed mice but shrews, chipmunks and birds also carry Lyme bacteria and can transfer them to ticks as well.

The second reason, Kilpatrick says, is social: “For reasons that are not clear, mosquito control is usually done by county or state health departments, where tick control is not,” he notes. “The result of that is it’s beholden upon you and I, as the lay public, to do our own control of ticks.” … Even if the mouse vaccine works spectacularly, Kilpatrick says, it will hardly make a difference unless there is a concerted effort to deploy it.

One more pessimistic note: The vaccine won’t affect the other diseases that the ticks carry, like babesiosis.

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