After a seemingly interminable February, March has arrived, bringing with it visions of spring and time spent in the blooming, blossoming outdoors. With those daydreams, of course, comes the threat of disease carried by New England’s wide array of hardy, voracious insects.
And if a new report from the state is correct, the spread of one of those diseases, Lyme disease, has been widely underreported, with one state legislator calling it a public health epidemic.
As many as 14,000 cases of Lyme disease are confirmed in Massachusetts each year, according to the state Department of Public Health. Officials, however, estimate the actual number of cases may be 10 times that number.
“We need to let people know how prevalent Lyme disease is in Massachusetts,” state Rep. David Linsky, part of a state legislative commission looking into the issue, told the Associated Press last week. “If you ask friends and ask your neighbors, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been touched by this.”
The disease is spread to humans from tick bites. Symptoms of the disease in its early stages include the presence of a bull’s-eye pattern around the bite, a rash and flu-like symptoms. Left untreated, the disease can progress to include severe joint pain, fatigue and neurological problems.
It is important to catch the disease early, when treatment with antibiotics is most effective.
The commission made several recommendations aimed at fighting the spread of the disease, including spraying pesticides to control ticks. That could mean expanding the role of local mosquito control districts. Other suggestions include allowing for expanded crossbow hunting to help control the deer population that carries Lyme-transmitting ticks, and pumping up public information campaigns.
The commission also suggests requiring insurers to cover treatment of the disease.
Those measures, some of them with significant price tags attached, will surely be debated by legislators crafting next years’s budget. In the meantime, the report should at least force all of us to acknowledge how easy it is to come in contact with the ticks that carry the disease — and how easy it is to lessen that contact.
It’s not enough to search yourself for ticks after spending time in the outdoors, as the ticks are so small they can easily be missed. Experts also recommend people wear long-sleeved shirts, tuck their pants into their socks and wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be easily spotted. Once home, folks should bang their clothes together to shake off any ticks, put their clothing in the laundry and take a shower.
Using a DEET-based repellent is also recommended.
While the threat from Lyme is real and it’s good to see the issue getting more attention from the state, the most effective steps we can take to stay disease free are the ones we take ourselves.