Opinion

Fighting Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses

Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases have become a major public health concern, with cases exploding over the past 15 years.  In 2003, Lyme disease infected around 30,000 Americans. Last year, there were an estimated 450,000 cases, a staggering 1,400 percent increase.

In the last year in Maine alone, there were approximately 1,400 new cases of Lyme disease, a sharp increase from the 752 cases in 2010.  Other tick-borne diseases are also on the rise in Maine. Babesiosis, a malaria-like disease, has more than doubled in the past five years, and anaplasmosis, related to rickets, has more than tripled.

Far too many Americans with Lyme disease experience a complex diagnostic odyssey that takes months or even years.  Paula Jackson Jones from Damariscotta shared with me her harrowing tale that took two years, scores of tests, and 23 different physicians before she finally found out that she had Lyme disease.

Paula’s journey started one afternoon 10 years ago, after raking leaves in her backyard.  A week later, unusual symptoms began: anxiety attacks, pain, muscle spasms, and fatigue. These symptoms became debilitating.  Before receiving the correct diagnosis, she was diagnosed incorrectly with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and other diseases. Once she received the proper diagnosis and treatment, she founded Midcoast Lyme Disease Support & Education, a nonprofit that raises awareness about Lyme.  

In addition to the physical and emotional toll that Lyme disease can impose, it is also expensive.  Paula is still paying off over $250,000 worth of medical bills she has incurred. Medical costs of Lyme disease are estimated at $1.3 billion per year.  When accounting for indirect medical costs, including loss of work, the annual costs balloon to $75 billion per year.

A correct and early diagnosis can reduce costs and improve the prognosis.  But we have a long way to go. When HIV became a public health crisis, a gold standard for identification and treatment was developed within 10 years.  Lyme disease was identified more than 40 years ago, yet there is still no gold standard treatment, and existing prevention, education, and diagnostic efforts are inadequate.

That is why I have introduced the TICK Act, which stands for Ticks: Identify, Control, and Knockout, with Sen. Tina Smith and Sen. Angus King as original cosponsors.  This bipartisan legislation would provide local communities and states with resources for prevention, early detection, and treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

The TICK Act would apply a three-pronged approach.  First, it would establish an office to develop a national strategy to prevent tick-borne diseases.  Second, the legislation would reauthorize Centers for Disease Control Regional Centers of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases that have led the scientific response to fighting ticks.  Finally, the bill would establish CDC grants to support state health departments’ efforts to improve data collection and analysis, early detection and diagnosis, treatment and public awareness.

As this initiative develops, some simple precautions can greatly lessen the risk.  Wearing light-colored clothing makes it easier to see ticks, and tucking pant legs into socks and shirts in waistbands makes it harder for them to hide.  Consider using a repellent or pre-treating clothing. Shower after spending time in the woods, and check yourself and children. Remember that pets don’t just carry ticks — they can get sick, too — so check them and treat with repellent or ask your vet about getting a shot for your dog.  Avoid walking through areas with leaf litter — that’s prime tick habitat.

From the time a tick begins feeding, it generally takes about 36 hours for the host to be infected with the Lyme bacteria.  Remove the tick with tweezers or a tick spoon, being careful to remove the entire tick, and wash the bite location thoroughly.  The old methods of using a lit match, petroleum jelly or nail polish are not recommended as they may accelerate the infection process.  

Note the date of the bite and monitor your health conditions daily, watching out for any fever, achiness, fatigue or the telltale red bull’s-eye ring around the bite.  If symptoms do occur, see your doctor immediately. Lyme disease responds well to oral antibiotics, and the sooner treatment begins, the better.

With individual precautions, we all can reduce our risk of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.  

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