The last thing you’re probably thinking about in the middle of our deep winter freeze is a tick bite.
But that’s what state lawmakers should be thinking about now — while the snow is thick and the air is bitter cold — in anticipation of another potentially dangerous tick season.
Lawmakers need to act quickly on two bills that could help those who suffer the debilitating effects of tick-borne diseases and to help speed their recoveries.
One bill (S7169) would set up a pilot program relating to testing for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses in children.
Essentially, the program would provide testing to exclude Lyme and tick-borne diseases in cases where children have symptoms that one might mistake for these diseases.
Lyme and tick-borne illnesses are often misdiagnosed or even unidentified because the symptoms are similar to other diseases like juvenile arthritis.
According to Dr. Catherine Brown, deputy state epidemiologist and state public health veterinarian at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, children are particularly vulnerable to Lyme disease, in large part because of how much time they spend outside in environments where ticks thrive and because they haven’t developed the same personal hygiene habits to check for ticks on a regular basis as adults have.
She said those under age 19, especially boys, have higher rates of Lyme disease than adults under 55.
Because pediatricians have gotten much more alert and educated to the potential for trouble, children are less likely to be misdiagnosed, she said. This pilot program will help ensure more accurate diagnoses.
In addition to the pilot program, the legislation sets up a graduate medical curriculum to help medical students learn to diagnose tick-related disease in children — better preparing the next generation of doctors for treating the diseases.
The other bill (S6926) was one of the outcomes of a series of hearings held last year by the Senate Task Force on Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases.
Since diagnosing these diseases in a timely fashion is very difficult, this bill would set up a statewide medical protocol.
According to state Sen. Chris Jacobs, a member of the task force, detection is plagued by “rampant inaccuracies” that can lead to diagnosis errors and people believing they’re not infected.
The new protocol includes requiring that each patient being treated for Lyme or another tick-related disease to be given written notification about symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis and other information.
Many patients who exhibit symptoms are either refused testing for Lyme disease, misdiagnosed, not given antibiotics until their symptoms are confirmed by a test, or told they aren’t eligible for further treatments because an initial test came back negative.
Patients not properly treated often spend months or years suffering the effects of the disease while trying to get proper treatment.
With a standardized protocol for evaluation and treatment, bill sponsors hope to eliminate some of the confusion, miscommunication and trauma these patients suffer.
However, the best approach to tick-borne illnesses, Dr. Brown said, is prevention.
That means wearing effective repellent, incorporating tick-detection into your routine, being aware of environments where ticks thrive, and learning how to properly remove ticks and get them identified so treatment can begin as soon as possible.
Don’t let the cold weather and snow lull you into a false sense of security. Tick season is coming back very soon, probably with a vengeance.
State lawmakers need to do all they can to make sure the medical community and potential patients are in the best position to deal with it.