PA Leads Nation in Cases of Lyme Disease, Lawmakers and Experts Look to Monitor Trends and Provide Better Treatment
HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - According to the CDC, Pennsylvania leads the nation with the highest reported cases of Lyme disease.
In recent years, Pennsylvania has also seen an increase in new tick species and cases of tickborne diseases. Now, lawmakers and tick experts hope new legislation will help them catch up to the evolving health crisis.
“We have seen expansion of tick populations. We're seeing ticks that haven't been common in our state start to be more common,” said Nicole Chinnici, Director of the Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University, and home of the Pennsylvania Tick Research Lab.
The PA Tick Research Lab studies pathogens that cause Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases and offers free testing to determine if a tick contains one of several disease-causing pathogens.
“And that's giving us live data on what our residents of Pennsylvania are being exposed to, what ticks are circulating in our environment, and what pathogens are circulating in our environment,” said Chinnici.
Chinnici says tick populations and pathogens vary across the state. Treatments for tickborne diseases vary as well. She says it’s crucial to be able to identify what’s happening in specific counties because different tick infections sometimes require different treatments.
“What we have in Monroe County, where I'm located, to what's in Harrisburg, to what is out in Meadville, Pennsylvania, is going to be different with different geographical landscapes, with different populations, different elevations, temperature,” said Chinnici. “It'll all play a role and so each 67 counties in Pennsylvania should be evaluated differently,” she added.
“Enough is enough, and we need to do more and we need to fight back more aggressively,” said Senator Michele Brooks (R-Erie/Crawford/Mercer/Warren). “Let's have a conversation about how to reduce the tick population in Pennsylvania,” added Brooks.
In the past 20 years, there have been over 110,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania. Brooks believes that number is much higher.
“There's probably hundreds of thousands more cases, if not millions in the United States that the CDC has not tracked,” said Brooks, who is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1188.
SB 1188 aims to help control the tick population, provide coverage for doctor-recommended Lyme disease treatment, and spread education and awareness of tickborne diseases. Brooks says long-term antibiotics and long-term coverage for those suffering from tickborne illness has been a debated topic in Harrisburg for years.
“There's been this battle or struggle in Harrisburg on whether long term antibiotics should be used,” said Brooks.
She says it's time for the Department of Health and the CDC to do more to fight rising tick populations, raise awareness, and recognize the long-term treatment options.
“We need to talk more about it because there's too many people suffering that don't need to be suffering,” said Brooks.
In regard to long-term treatment, The PA Department of Health’s website states:
“Multi-month prescriptions of antibiotics are not recommended and have not been shown to be effective... Most people treated with antibiotics, especially those treated early, fully recover from Lyme diseases. About 20% of people may develop Post Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS) which is a persistence of some Lyme symptoms even after antibiotic treatment. Most symptoms resolve within months. Repeated treatments with antibiotics have not been shown to be effective in treating PTLDS.”
“Candidly, I don't think the Department of Health has been strong enough in their response to this crisis that’s impacting Pennsylvanians,” said Brooks.
Brooks’ legislation would require the Department of Health to work with the Tick Research Lab to develop an electronic database for use by the Lab, the department, and health care professionals.
The database would include nonidentifiable patient information, including tick testing information, results, and zip code and county location of ticks tested at the Tick Lab; diagnostic testing information and results; and the surveillance criteria applied to determine the confirmed or suspected patient diagnosis from the attending health care professional.
Chinnici says transparency and working together is imperative for medical professionals, tick experts, and the department to be on the same page when treating and fighting the health crisis one county at a time.
“They're the ones who are going to be able to notify our position and notify the public on any concerns of either emerging or pathogens that are coming about or to increase in prevalence or change in our current tick population,” said Chinnici.
“We have the resources, we have the tools, and we need to create a partnership where the best people are at the table utilizing everyone's expertise to solve this problem,” said Brooks.