While on a population basis Lyme disease is still more common in more northeastern states such as Connecticut and Vermont, Pennsylvania has recorded the highest numbers of confirmed cases for the past several years.
According to the CDC, in 2012, nearly 19 percent of all cases in the United States occurred in the Commonwealth.
To begin reducing those statistics, Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a law creating a task force to work on prevention and treatment.
Bill prime sponsor, State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, (R-Bucks and Montgomery Counties), said the legislation is aimed at providing information to both the public and healthcare providers.
“It is a preventable disease,” said Greenleaf. “It’s important for us to educate people about the fact that if they do contract this disease that they should then get immediate help, because it can turn into a chronic disease and have very serious consequences.”
The law also creates a 20-person task force — made up of community members, researchers, and clinicians, among others — to report back to the state on the best way to go about outreach.
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, and is transmitted to people when ticks bite them. If caught early, as in the case of Greenleaf’s youngest son, the disease can usually be cured with antibiotics. But not all cases are straightforward.
The task force bill as approved left out a key component from its previous formulation.
“We originally wanted a mandatory tick collection and inventory because it could determine where the hotspots were,” said Greenleaf. “But because of money concerns during the legislative process, that was taken out.”
As currently written, the legislation allows for such a tick registry, but is entirely dependent on whether the Department of Health has the funds.
Health Department spokesman Wes Culp said tick testing will wait at least until the task force makes its recommendations, which it must do so a year after convening. If the Commonwealth moves ahead with the plan, it will likely be in collaboration with Penn State or East Stroudsburg University.
In the meantime, Culp said protecting Pennsylvanians from the disease begins with education about prevention.
“If you’re going out, you have to take precautions if you’re to be outside,” he said. “Such things like bug spray; always make sure you’re wearing appropriate clothing; check your hair when you get back inside. There’s a lot of very simple, basic things that if people are educated about, we feel like those prevention methods can cut those numbers down significantly.”