Lyme numbers a ‘health emergency’
“Part of our charge is the education of the public,” said Deer Task Force President Ruth Perfido at the group’s Oct. 15 meeting. As part of that effort, the Deer Task Force (DTF) has joined with Block Island Health Services to reach out to the State Department of Health (DOH), and to state and federal legislators to make them aware of the increasing number of island residents being diagnosed with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.
As of the end of August 2013, there have been 68 cases of Lyme disease reported on the island. This represents a significant increase from a total of 48 cases for all of 2012. BIHS Executive Director Barbara Baldwin, who attended the DTF meeting, said there would be an update at the next Medical Center meeting on Oct. 28. *
As a result of earlier meetings of the two groups and town officials, Baldwin said a letter had been sent to Dr. Michael Fine, director of the DOH, with copies sent to state and federal congressional delegates.
“We’re saying it [the increase of Lyme cases] is a health emergency and want the Department of Health to respond positively,” Baldwin said. “We’re looking for affordable accessibility to testing and the eradication of Lyme.” She was pleased that a recent day of free Lyme testing at the medical center had drawn 123 people.
At the time of the meeting, the local medical center had not yet heard back from Fine. Contacted after the meeting, DOH Public Information Officer Andrea Degos explained said that “Dr. Fine has drafted a response and has agreed to meet [with members of both groups] as requested.”
George Mellor was concerned that the number of Lyme cases was being under-reported — not just on the island but around the state as well. This view is shared by increasingly more health care practitioners and researchers who point out that not everyone can afford to be tested, leaving many cases unreported.
Degos acknowledged that Lyme is under-reported, and said that while the DOH issues forms for doctors to fill out, not all do so and consequently cases go unreported.
Degos added that due to the inconsistency of information provided, the reports are divided into categories; possible, probable and confirmed cases. To qualify for the latter, the report must be based on both positive test results and clinical data provided by the physician. These criteria are consistent with those followed by the island’s medical center when filing its reports, Baldwin explained after the meeting.
“BIHS reports cases to the DOH in two circumstances: if there is a positive test result and if there is a positive identification of a rash. These are the only ways at this time to confirm Lyme,” Baldwin said.
However, Baldwin pointed out, “Every month we issue a report on how many people came in with Lyme-related issues and we track these.” She acknowledged that Lyme tests are very expensive. Perfido suggested looking into possible grant funds for testing. “The best solution would be to have the Health Department fund testing for those who can’t afford it,” Baldwin said.
Task force member Heather Hatfield suggested encouraging the public to contact authorities upstate. “People need to tell [each other] to put more pressure on the DOH and on their [legislative] representatives.” She added, “Let’s get it out there: write your state and federal legislators and write to the Department of Health.”
From the audience, Dean Brown described the many difficulties he’d experienced over many years of battling Lyme Disease. He also commended the ongoing study conducted by Yale University under the direction of Maria Ana Diuk-Wasser, assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale.
Brown said tick collection was taking place on United States Fish and Wildlife Service property on the island and on some of his own adjacent land. In one sweep the group found over 10,000 ticks, he said. He considered the numbers ominous given that 20 percent of them would be considered infectious.
Bill McKernan suggested that Brown and others suffering with Lyme write letters to The Block Island Times describing their ordeals in order to get the community’s attention about the urgency of the situation. “It is an important thing to do,” he said.
Lisa Sprague suggested that the Tourism Council and the Chamber of Commerce “take a position” about eradicating the disease from the island.
Perfido said, “The focus [needs to be] on the substantial reduction of the [deer] herd.”
She added that there also needed to be “a way to get better statistics. There should be funds to make certain that everyone can be tested.” She asked if the group should hold a fundraiser for that purpose.
“For flu shots there is money provided by the DOH,” Baldwin said, “but there is no subsidy for Lyme testing.”
Task force members discussed their most recent fundraiser: a successful sale of lime-green caps with the logo, “I’m ticked off!” The group decided to keep selling the hats, and to extend the sale to the upcoming annual Christmas Stroll at the end of November.
The next meeting is set for Nov. 12.
*This article has been changed from the version that appeared in print. The next BIHS board meeting is Oct. 28, not Oct. 21.