If you’ve been on line at an East End pharmacy the past couple summers, chances are you’ve heard the people around you clamoring to fill prescriptions for six-week doses of doxycycline. You’ve seen the jars of tick-pulling tweezers on the counters. You’ve seen the knowing look in the pharmacist’s eye if you’re among the unlucky ones diagnosed with Lyme Disease each year. You’ve heard your friends beg off of outdoor summer activities because they can’t go out in the sun until they finish their antibiotics. It’s easy to believe that eastern Long Island is in the center of an epidemic.
The Centers for Disease Control acknowledged this week that 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme Disease each year in the United States, ten times more than were previously thought to have the disease. CDC representatives made the announcement at the 2013 International Conference on Lyme Borreliosis and other Tick-Borne Diseases in Boston Sunday night.
“We know that routine surveillance only gives us part of the picture, and that the true number of illnesses is much greater,” said Dr. Paul Mead, the chief of epidemiology and surveillance for CDC’s Lyme disease program, in an announcement Monday. “This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention.”
The CDC’s findings, which are preliminary and do not yet include a detailed statistical breakdown, were based on a survey of seven major diagnostic laboratories, patient surveys and a review of insurance information. A review of the methodology used is available here. Lyme diagnoses are far more prevalent in 13 states in the northeast and upper midwest than anywhere else in the country.
New York has historically had the highest incidence of Lyme Disease of any of the other states where the disease is commonplace, including Connecticut, where the disease was first discovered.
In 2011, there were 2,004 confirmed cases of Lyme reported to the CDC in Connecticut, while there were 3,118 cases reported to the CDC in New York. New York doctors have reported more than 5,000 cases of Lyme Disease in five of the last ten years, more than any other state. The full state-by-state report is available here. But, the CDC now says, those numbers likely far underestimate the amount of people who have the disease, because many diagnoses are actually never reported to the CDC.
In addition, chronic Lyme is frequently misdiagnosed, argue many advocates for more awareness of the disease, particularly when people present symptoms such as aches and neurological problems without knowing they’d been bitten by a deer tick at some point in the past.
East End lawmakers have been working for years to try to reduce the area’s burgeoning deer population, with mixed success. On the mainland, the focus has been on expanding deer hunting. On Shelter Island, Cornell Cooperative Extension is working on an ongoing pilot program called the “4-Poster,” which rolls a tick-killing insecticide on deer at feeding stations in the woods. The 4-Poster hasn’t been approved on the mainland in part due to concerns that the insecticide, permethrin, will contaminate deer meat.
Permethrin is also found in several flea and tick control products commonly used on pets, including Advantix.
“We know people can prevent tick bites through steps like using repellents and tick checks. Although these measures are effective, they aren’t fail-proof and people don’t always use them,” said Lyle R. Petersen, M.D., M.P.H, director of CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. “We need to move to a broader approach to tick reduction, involving entire communities, to combat this public health problem.”
Citing the new CDC research, East Hampton resident Ilissa Meyer urged the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday to create a town tick task force, and said the town’s new deer management plan would do little to control the problem.
“How many tourists will come to our sleepy town if they know there is a 50 percent chance of them contracting a tick-borne disease?” she asked board members. “Our deer management plan will not do anything to combat our tick problem. I challenge this board to immediately form a tick task force to include experts in this field…. Ticks are not discerning.They do not care what political party you’re on. This is all of our problem.”
Last year, Suffolk County created a Tick and Vector-Borne Diseases Task Force, at the urging of then-County Legislator Ed Romaine. The task force last met last December, according to the county’s website. Mr. Romaine has left county government and is now Brookhaven Town Supervisor. Suffolk County Department of Health Services Spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern could not be reached for comment on the status of the task force.
In the meantime, the Tick-Borne Disease Alliance and Southampton Hospital are partnering on Aug. 25 for a “Bite Back for a Cure” bike ride through Southampton to raise money for tick disease research. The hospital is planning to open a center for tick-borne diseases next spring.