No one knows precisely why Howard County has more reported Lyme disease cases than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, but part of the solution might be local.
An ungainly looking green plastic device called a four-poster that simultaneously attracts deer with corn and then uses four paint rollers to apply a mild pesticide that kills ticks is manufactured in Ellicott City by the 82-year-old C.R. Daniels Co. It is the only firm in the nation licensed by the federal government to produce the four-poster, which was invented and perfected by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists to protect cattle from lone star ticks in the Southwest.
The central container holds the corn, which is gravity-fed very slowly into two small trays to attract the deer. When they lean down to get the corn, the rollers on either side touch their heads and necks, applying the pesticide.
The four-poster has been commercially available since 2004. But with a price of $475, plus one-time start-up and annual maintenance costs, only about 400 a year have been sold, company officials said. Despite that, it is slowly emerging as a safe way to sharply reduce the number of black-legged ticks carrying Lyme disease that struck 2,216 Maryland residents in 2008, and 2,576 the year before.
Howard Del. Guy Guzzone, who has had Lyme disease, hopes to organize an effort to combat the sometimes-debilitating disease this year, he said, though the county government already uses four-posters in several parks.
Ann Holcomb Dixon, an Ellicott City woman with a son who has struggled for a decade with the effects of Lyme disease, runs a support group called the Howard County Lyme and Associated Disease Association. She said prevention is the key to cutting Lyme disease, and the four-poster is "a great idea."
Although those who suffer from the disease also use other, cheaper methods for killing ticks, people like Enid Feinberg of Phoenix in Baltimore County and Dave Wolf, an equipment manager on Gibson Island in Anne Arundel, swear by the four-poster.
"Ticks have been way down," said Wolf, who works as an equipment manager for the Gibson Island Corp., which hosted a government trial of the device and then bought 15 when the trial ended.
"I'm in the woods all the time, and it works great," Wolf said. Gibson Island has 10 of the four-posters now deployed across the 1,000-acre, half-wooded private island, he said.
Feinberg, who lives on a 14-acre tract, said she sees the four-poster as a way to use the deer to spread the insecticide and sharply reduce the danger of Lyme disease.
"What's really neat is when they [the deer] lie down, they treat the vegetation too," she said.
The inventors are pleased with their creation too.
"This is about as good as it gets," said J. Mathews Pound, a USDA research entomologist in Kerrville, Texas, who helped develop the device in the 1990s. The four-poster is safe and harmless even if the chemical is touched directly. It spreads the oily Permethrin on the deer's hide, and it does not penetrate, nor does it coat the environment the way spraying an area would. It will kill up to 90 percent of ticks over two or three years over a wide area if used properly, he said.
"We were trying to pick the safest way we can find," Pound said.
Lyme disease has grown with suburban deer populations in recent years throughout the Northeast, from southern Maine to northern Virginia. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control statistics, the number of Lyme disease cases nationally more than doubled since the early 1990s to 27,444 cases in 2007. Maryland's per-capita rate of 45.8 cases per 100,000 is higher than the 34.7 case per-capita average in the 10 other most affected states.
Howard County, with a population about 275,000, reported 369 Lyme disease cases last year, more than Montgomery (314), Baltimore County (238) or Anne Arundel (185), despite their much greater size.
County health officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said he thinks Howard has more cases reported and also has more homes built where deer are numerous.
"Baltimore and Montgomery County have nowhere near the habitat," he said, with their large urban areas.
Howard County bought six four-posters in 2005 and placed them at 300-acre Blandair Park, which is not open to the public. Recently, several more were installed at Schooley Mill Park in Highland and two more at West Friendship Park near the county fairgrounds.
Phil Norman, the county's deer project manage,r said studies over time show the four-posters have been effective in Blandair.
Among deer killed by hunters annually over the last four winters, the average number of ticks per deer was much higher at other county parks than at Blandair. In the 2007-2008 season, the average was .25 ticks per deer killed at Blandair, compared with .732 in other county parks. Four of the five ticks found on dead deer at Blandair that season were on one animal, Norman said.
C.R. Daniels Co., under the brand Dandux Outdoors, has sold four-posters in 20 states and Scotland, but they are not yet profitable, said company Vice President Andy Szulinski.
The cost is higher for the first unit, mainly because of the $110 squeeze gun used to apply the Permethrin paint rollers, plus the cost of the chemical and the 200 pounds of corn the device will hold. They require weekly maintenance that can average $200 a year, he said.
"We're doing this as a labor of love," Szulinski said, explaining that a company official afflicted by Lyme disease pushed the privately held company's interest.
"We believe in this. We're interested in being good neighbors and good citizens," Szulinski said.
By the numbers
Despite its smaller population and area, Howard County has more lyme disease cases than Montgomery, Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties:
Howard County 69 Montgomery 14 Baltimore County 38 Anne Arundel 85