Targeting Lyme Disease in Massachusetts

June 26, 2014

By Senator Richard J. Ross

It has been over a year since the report on Lyme disease in Massachusetts was issued by the Special Commission to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Incidence and Impacts of Lyme Disease.  Besides being one of the twenty-one members of this commission, I have firsthand knowledge of the disease since I am one of thousands of cases of Lyme disease in Massachusetts.

Lyme disease continues to become more prevalent in Massachusetts, yet still what is most concerning is how few people know of its steady growth. When I first contracted Lyme disease, I was completely unaware of its implications. Initially, I felt feverish and fatigued, but it was not until my face went numb and I visited my doctor that I discovered I had Lyme disease.

The number of diagnosed cases in Massachusetts has more than doubled in only four years. Today reported incidences of Lyme disease are above 50 per 100,000 persons in our state and this is only the number of cases that are diagnosed and reported.

The Commission released the report in February of last year to offer recommendations for state and local action so that Lyme outbreaks can be controlled and prevented. The major initiatives the Commission suggested included a statewide public education campaign, increased medical awareness and mandated insurance coverage.

Knowledge is the key to prevention; if educational programs were more widespread, people would know to seek treatment at the first sign. Without treatment for an extended period of time, those infected are at high risk for more serious health problems such as arthritis, meningitis and facial and limb weakness.

As we enter the tick-abundant summer months, the Special Commission’s message and work on Lyme disease is crucial. Currently before the legislature is a measure that would provide diagnostic services and long-term treatment to those diagnosed, which will be covered by all health insurance providers in the state.  This bill would ensure swift and collaborative diagnoses and treatments close to home, allowing all of our citizens to receive the necessary care that they require when combating Lyme disease.

This bill is essential when it comes to ensuring that our citizenry has proper access to necessary treatment and care.  Too often we find families inhibited by rising costs for treatment and refusal of care from insurance providers. Finding proper facilities for treatment is an additional hurdle families must face as many local hospitals have few outlets for assistance.

The Commission report additionally paved way for Lyme and tick education by pushing for community partnerships meant to increase Lyme disease awareness. We have seen an uptake in local promotion targeting different age-ranges, collaboration with our public schools and networking with groups working in forested areas. Some regional hospitals have been targeting schools and camps, along with other populated areas to include their new education program which teaches Lyme disease prevention through early detection of bites and possible infested areas.

The Commission Report aimed to inform citizens by leading the way in educating medical professionals, requesting refresher courses on Lyme disease, including what to look for, how to diagnose someone on the Lyme spectrum and the proper steps to take care of them.

We have also seen a surge in the surveillance of ticks throughout the state, The University of Massachusetts in Amherst has been designated by the state to create the first Tick-Borne Disease Network (TBDN) in Massachusetts.  This program offers to analyze and test ticks sent in from 32 towns in Middlesex, Nantucket, and Barnstable counties for pathogens that cause Lyme or other diseases. Through its analysis of all provided ticks it offers research and statistics for the entire state, allowing all to view the online databases in order to track the growth in area of disease-carrying ticks.

Since the report was released, the Commonwealth has made important headway in battling the surge of Lyme disease.  However, progress in Lyme disease education and research must be broadened if we are going to be able to tackle the increasing number of cases.  More public service announcements, trainings, and information sessions on the location of possible tick infestations, how to dress when in those areas, and what to look for if you think you might have Lyme disease should become widespread.  I believe that through support of these programs working to combat the rise of Lyme disease, there is hope that we can enjoy the summer weather outdoors without the fear of ticks and Lyme disease hovering over us.

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