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More urgency needed on tick-borne illnesses

More urgency needed on tick-borne illnesses

Two warnings at work already this year about casual exposure to ticks

The first reminder came about 10 days ago, the first real warm day of the spring, when we were warned to be extra careful when we walked down the hill to get onto the bike path that runs behind the newspaper. You have to go through a little patch of tall grass and brush to get to it.

The second reminder came the other day when one of our photographers -- who had been outside working in Spa State Park and the Saratoga Battlefield Park — noticed a tick on her. Reporters and photographers often find themselves doing stories in nature. Hey! Let’s be careful out there. And remember to tuck in those pant legs and use repellent.

Two warnings at work already this year about casual exposure to ticks -- exactly two more than most of us have ever had in our careers.

The problem of ticks and tick-borne illnesses continues to grow in our area. Our interminable winter was apparently no match for the impending 2018 population of disease-carrying ticks.

Each year, about 8,000 cases of Lyme disease, 700 cases of 266 anaplasmosis, 400 cases of babesiosis, 100 cases of ehrlichiosis and 30 cases of other tick-borne illnesses are reported to the state Health Department. That sounds bad. But those numbers don’t fully illustrate the problem, as many cases go unreported.

Last year, we also saw a few cases of the rare Powassan virus, a potentially fatal tick-borne illness. Several of the kind of ticks that carry the disease were found in Saratoga County, and the virus was attributed to the death of a Gansevoort man last June.

The New York State Legislature could play a significant role in moving along research that could ensure better treatment of these diseases and help people deal with the sometimes chronic health effects of diseases like Lyme Disease and Powassan. Yet many pieces of vital legislation idle in committee or only have a sponsor in one house, which means they have much further to go for passage than two-house bills.

Back in January, when warm weather was just a gleam in Mother Nature’s eye, we urged the Legislature in an editorial to pass two important pieces of legislation that would help in both research and treatment of tick-borne diseases. (To help make the point, the editorial was accompanied by a close-up photo of an engorged deer tick resting in the snow.)

The first bill we supported (A10186/S7169) would set up a pilot program relating to testing for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses in children. Children are particularly vulnerable to tick-borne illnesses because of the time they spend outside and because they’re less likely than an adult to be vigorous about checking for and identifying ticks. And when they do get a tick-borne illness, it is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms mirror those of other childhood ailments. This bill would allow the state health commissioner, under the pilot, to allow health care practitioners and providers to voluntarily submit samples to exclude Lyme and tick-borne diseases from children who show clinical diagnoses with similar symptoms of other diseases, such as juvenile arthritis.

The bill is sponsored by local Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and cosponsored in the Senate by local Sens. Kathy Marchione, James Tedisco and Betty Little.

Despite having had five months over the winter to act on the legislation, the bill is sitting in the respective health committees of the Assembly and Senate.

The same apparent lack of urgency can be found in another bill we supported (S6926), which would set up a statewide medical protocol for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. The protocol would require written notification to each patient being treated for Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases relating to symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis and other information relating to such diseases, according to the bill.

But bill has been stuck in the chambers’ respective insurance committees since January.

There are other important pieces of legislation state lawmakers need to consider, including one bill (A0114/S4713) that would require health insurers to provide coverage for long-term medical care for Lyme disease and other tick-borne related pathogens. It also would provide for taxpayer gifts for tick-borne illness research, detection and education and establish a tick-borne illness fund.

This one might take some persuasion of lawmakers, as it involves compelling big-lobby insurance companies to cover something that some don’t even agree is a legitimate medical issue.

This two-house bill has among its cosponsors local Assembly members Angelo Santabarbara, Phil Steck and Woerner. A separate bill calling for a study on insurance coverage for Lyme disease (A4863) might need to be enacted in order to convince lawmakers of the need for such coverage. Woerner is a cosponsor of this legislation.

Yet another piece of legislation (A8900/S7170) would establish a Lyme and tick-borne disease working group to review current best practices for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of Lyme and tick-borne diseases, according to the bill. Local state Sens. George Amedore, Marchione and Tedisco are cosponsors. Again, though, no significant action has been taken.

Until lawmakers see fit to take action, your best defense against tick-related illnesses is active steps for prevention.

That includes being aware of environments where ticks thrive, wearing repellent and adapting your clothing, learning how to properly remove ticks from skin and clothes, and learning to identify problems that might require treatment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a lot of good information about prevention and detection on its website: www.cdc.gov/features/stopticks/index.html. You can also google other sites. 

We understand the state has priorities for its money. We understand that a thorough review of legislation takes time, especially legislation relating to the identification and treatment of complex medical matters such as tick-borne illnesses.

But given the rapidly growing problem of tick-borne illnesses and their direct effect on the health of so many New Yorkers, state lawmakers must attach a greater element of urgency to legislation that will move the ball forward on research, treatment and funding.

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