With no vaccine to prevent the onset of Lyme disease in humans and an unpredictable season, the only course of action is to take precautions against ticks.
How much Lyme disease will be seen in a particular season can be difficult to predict. Nate Wardle, emergency preparedness public information officer at the state Department of Health, said there are variables such as the weather and the rodent population that are still not well understood that could affect the instance of Lyme.
According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website, a vaccine had been developed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December 1998. Lymerix, as it was known, was tested on more than 10,000 volunteers from areas of the United States in which Lyme disease is common.
Though instances of Lyme disease were continuing to increase in 2002, the manufacturer of the vaccines saw a decline in sales from 1.5 million doses in 1999 to projected sales of 10,000 doses. Manufacturing of the vaccine was discontinued.
“The important thing is to remind people that Lyme is present in every county in Pennsylvania and that people need to be aware and take precautions to avoid tick bites,” Wardle said.
Those precautions include avoiding brush and tall grass, wearing long sleeves and pants, using an effective repellent containing DEET, showering and checking for ticks after going outdoors, removing attached ticks promptly and correctly and contacting a health care provider if symptoms develop.
The Lyme Resource Network also recommends minimizing tick habitats by raking leaves, removing standing water, keeping grass mowed and trimmed, controlling weeds, removing dead plant materials, and treating plantings with tick tubes.
When going outdoors, people should dress in light-colored clothing, tuck their pants into socks and use repellents.
The real solution — and challenge — is to reduce the tick population.
“Until we get some depletion of the tick population, this disease is going to continue to explode,” said Dr. Timothy Stonesifer of the Cumberland Valley Parochial Medical Clinic.
The will to take on such a project isn’t there since Lyme isn’t considered a potentially fatal disease, but Stonesifer said that could change should the Powassan virus, which is also borne by ticks, make its way into the area.
According to the CDC, the Powassan virus can infect the central nervous system and cause inflammation of the brain and of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speech difficulties and seizures, though many infected people do not develop symptoms.
About half of the survivors of Powassan have permanent neurological symptoms, and 10 percent of the cases are fatal.
There is a lingering education and awareness gap with Lyme disease despite its increased appearance in the state.
A national survey reported by the CDC showed that 20 percent of the people surveyed in areas with a high risk of Lyme disease were unaware that the risk existed. Half of those interviewed in another study failed to protect themselves.
The Lyme disease task force recommended plans to increase awareness of Lyme disease and to educate the public on how to prevent it as well as other associated tick-borne infections.
“The Department of Health has established relationships with Lyme disease experts and professionals from many different organizations across the state due to the Task Force,” Wardle said.
Wardle said the health department will continue to work with experts to create community-based Lyme disease awareness and education programs among high-risk populations. Programs are also being coordinated statewide to help health care practitioners increase their understanding of Lyme disease to prevent the progression of acute infection to later stage disease.
That education can be vital to early treatment, which Stonesifer said is effective.
“If there’s more awareness with the providers, there’s more awareness to make a better diagnosis,” Stonesifer said.
Lyme disease awareness and education programs have been held in high-risk counties including Adams, Bucks, Cambria, Center, Clearfield, Cumberland, Franklin, Lancaster, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Pike, Susquehanna, Tioga, Wayne, Wyoming and York. Recently, public service announcements about prevention have run in a statewide radio campaign.
The key to preventing the spread of Lyme disease rests in education efforts like these.
“Education is important. If you don’t get a tick bite, you’re not going to get the disease,” Stonesifer said.