They can be as tiny as a poppyseed, but ticks are causing big trouble in Pennsylvania, the state House Health Committee learned during a meeting at East Stroudsburg University.
Since 2011, the commonwealth has led the U.S. in Lyme disease diagnoses and other types of tick-borne illnesses are prevalent as well. From prevention to cure, these diseases are presenting challenges to doctors, researchers and lawmakers.
Pennsylvania is a tick magnet, according to Dr. Donald Eggen, forest health manager with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource’s Bureau of Forestry. Weather, the addition of some plants in the urban areas, small mammal populations and coyote expansion into fox territories all play a part. But the biggest problem may be the state’s high population of deer.
Deer ticks are the most common type of disease-bearing pest, said Nicole Chinnici, who leads the laboratory at East Stroudsburg’s TickCheck. Pennsylvania residents can send ticks to the lab and have them tested.
Since April, the testing has been free, and the lab already has tested 6,700. Of those, about 51.8 percent have tested positive for disease, with the majority of the cases being Lyme disease, Chinnici said.
North central Pennsylvania reports the most tick-borne diseases. Pike County commissioners formed the Pike County Tick Borne Disease Task Force to search for ways to combat the issue. The task force’s goal is to education the community without raising alarm.
“Pike County’s major industry is tourism,” said Pike County Commissioner Matthew Osterburg. “We want people to be able to enjoy the outdoors but we also want them to be prepared.”
Wayne County Memorial Community Health Center’s opened the Tick-Borne Disease Wellness Center in April. The center received 125 calls on its first day and within weeks expanded its staffing from one day to three days a week, said Harriet Loizeaux, the center’s director.
Diagnosing and treating tick-borne diseases presents challenges for physicians, particularly because initial tests may show up as negative, testified Dr. Jeffrey Jahre of St. Luke’s University Health Network and an infectious disease specialist. Better diagnostic testing is needed, he said.
“There’s a critical gap of a gold standard test for Lyme and other tick-borne diseases that can accurately diagnose active disease,” Jahre told lawmakers.
Later diagnoses can mean additional treatments that are not always covered by insurance, testified Michelle Cassetori of the Pennsylvania Lyme Resource Network, who has two daughters who were diagnosed with the disease.
Health Committee Chairman Kathy Rapp is trying to remedy that with HB 629, which would require insurers to cover tick-borne disease treatments at all stages. The bill passed the House and is currently in the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee.
Jahre said “prevention is always better than cure” and said more has to be done to educate the public on how to remove ticks. A tick that is removed within 24 hours likely will not infect someone, he said.
More research has to be done in developing a vaccine for humans as one exists for animals, Jahre said.
State lawmakers are considering several bills related to tick-borne diseases.
Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-East Stroudsburg, reintroduced her measure in January to allow school nurses to remove ticks from students. The bill is currently in the House Education Committee. She also reintroduced a bill that would require continuing education on tick-borne diseases for doctors and other advanced practitioners. That bill is currently in the House Professional Licensure Committee.