Fighting Lyme with an uptick in awareness

Special to the Rappahannock News

Living in the shadows of the lovely Blue Ridge here in Rappahannock County, surrounded by spring’s bursting colors of forsythia, dogwood and redbud, a Debbie Downer might ask one tragically sad but crucial question of certain local residents: Is living in a beautiful rural area of the northeastern United States worth the risk of contracting the potentially long-term, life-altering, tick-borne disease called Lyme?  

Most Rappahannockians would probably answer yes.  

To help minimize the risk, however, and lay out all the bare facts, the Rappahannock League of Environmental Protection (RLEP) is sponsoring a “Tick and Lyme Disease Awareness Forum” at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15 at the Theatre in Washington. Then a free showing at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 28 at the Theatre will feature the controversial film documentary “Under Our Skin” – “a gripping tale of microbes, medicine & money, [that] exposes the hidden story of Lyme disease, one of the most serious and controversial epidemics of our time.”

“The Forum will be an informational discussion of [locally found] ticks and the life cycle of both the ticks and Lyme disease,” says RLEP President Rick Kohler.

Discussion topics at the forum will include identification of ticks, how to protect oneself against ticks and Lyme, details of the Lyme spirochete bacterium, and information on a study being carried out by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Kohler says, noting that SCBI will be asking citizens to help collect ticks as part of its investigation.

Lyme, or the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, is transmitted predominantly to humans through the bite from the tiny black-legged tick – also known as the deer tick – after at least 24 hours of attachment. According to the national Centers on Disease Control and Prevention’s website, Lyme is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S.

The CDC states that in 2010, 94 percent of Lyme cases were reported from 12 U.S. states, including Maryland and Virginia, the latter being the southernmost affected state in relation to the disease’s origin and epicenter discovered decades ago in Lyme, Conn.

The diverse symptoms of Lyme can be impairing and even fatal if left untreated. According to the Lyme Disease Association’s website, they range from the immediate, telltale “bull’s eye” rash and intermittent flu-like symptoms to latter indications of joint pain, bladder and cardiac dysfunction and neurological disorders.

Occurrence of Lyme disease in Virginia – and the U.S. as a whole – is steadily increasing to a 2010 incidence rate of 11.4 confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

RLEP’s April 15 forum is one of many platforms for the increased education of citizens, public officials and the health community on Lyme.

“Our membership has expanded to 10 chapters [including chapters in Shenandoah Valley and Warrenton] from its 2001 inception,” says Monte Skall, president of the McLean-based National Capital Lyme Disease Association. The chapters hold regular meetings to update and address concerns about Lyme.

Skall notes that Gov. Bob McDonnell commissioned a Lyme task force, whose recommendations were adopted unanimously by Virginia’s House of Delegates last June. Says Skall, “This sends a clear signal to county health departments [which report to the CDC] to take Lyme more seriously.”  The task force findings confirmed that “overlooked or forgotten” Lyme case reporting has led to an “undercount” of infection and incidence rate.

While an estimated 10 percent of deer ticks are currently infected in the Virginia Piedmont region, according to state entomologist and primary tick tracker David Raines, the number of deer ticks and reported cases are rising each year overall. This year’s relatively warm winter is expected to increase the tick population, and thus the number of incidents.