HUNTERDON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
HIGHEST RISK FOR LYME DISEASE STARTS NOW
Two out of three Lyme disease infections that will occur in Hunterdon County this year will occur during the next six weeks, warned John Beckley, health officer and director of the county health department. "We're now into the highest risk period of the season and we’re urging everyone to step up their personal prevention efforts," he added. That is easy to do but it does require attention. "The best prevention is to check for ticks and remove them promptly," advised Beckley.
That recommendation by the county health department is repeatedly tirelessly, not only during this highest risk period – mid-May to the end of June – but throughout all warm months. Ticks will seek a blood meal and bite when the temperature is above 40 degrees.
“There is a window of opportunity for an individual to greatly lower their risk of Lyme disease,” said Beckley. “Ticks generally need to be attached for 36 hours or longer to transmit the Lyme bacteria. So, if you find a tick, be sure to thoroughly check for others. It’s not the tick you remove that gives you Lyme. It’s the one you don’t find.”
Beckley explained that the county health department will identify ticks for residents who bring them in, but the department does not have testing service capability.
There is reason for concern this year. The county health department reported that confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the county rose last year to 378. This represents a 45 percent increase in a single year when compared to 260 confirmed cases during 2007.
“Clearly, the challenge of reducing the impact of Lyme disease lies in how well residents hear and heed the recommendations we make,” said Beckley. “We’ve had success in seeing a multi-year decline of cases in the recent past.” In 2006, there were 273 cases. With the exception of a slight rise during 2005, confirmed cases plummeted more than 40 percent, from a high of 618 during 1999 to the 260 cases logged in 2007. “This latest data for 2008 signals the difficulty of sustaining a positive trend,” explained Beckley. “The undeniable fact is that with diseases and other serious public health challenges, there are numerous causes and effects. As a department, we’re working with limited resources to protect residents from a growing number of health concerns.”
Part of the challenge for the health department is to get residents to act on the information it provides. “They become their own best agents in protecting themselves and the health of their families and friends," said Beckley. "This includes not only Lyme disease but also other major public health threats such as the current H1N1 swine flu, seasonal influenza, West Nile Virus, bioterrorism and the many naturally occurring diseases having potential for wide-scale spread.
"With Lyme, for example, our advice to residents is to do thorough tick checks," stressed Beckley. "Areas to pay extra attention to are underarms, behind the knees, groin area, under the hairline and behind the ears." Also important is to protect pets with tick collars or treat them with one of the repellent products applied monthly to the skin. "This is the time of year you should speak to your veterinarian about these options," Beckley added. "And by all means, keep pets off the furniture."
It is smart for businesses to ensure that employees get the Lyme awareness message. "Whether acquired on the job or after hours, Lyme disease frequently results in lost work time and increased health care costs," said Beckley.
Besides checking yourself for ticks and removing them promptly, other steps to reduce the risk of getting Lyme disease include tucking pants into socks and long-sleeved shirts into pants to create a barrier between the ticks and skin; wearing light colors and tightly woven fabrics to help spot ticks on clothing more easily and to prevent them from getting through the fabric; wearing closed shoes rather than sandals when in a higher risk area; applying insect repellants containing at least 30 percent DEET when in areas where ticks may be found (be sure not to use DEET on children under the age of three and do not apply to hands and faces of children); staying in the center of paths when possible to avoid tick-infested areas including leaf litter in wooded spots and medium to tall grassy areas; and knowing what a deer tick looks like and how to safely remove it.
To help recognize ticks, the health department offers tick identification cards that clearly display the various stages and actual sizes of the deer tick. Health department representatives also are featured regularly on local radio sharing expertise on a wide variety of health risks in the county including Lyme disease-carrying ticks and how to spot them.
Combining epidemiological, entomological and communicable disease models, the county health department is using science to track, monitor and address Lyme disease across the county. "We analyze all the Lyme data we acquire," said Beckley. "This includes working with the state Department of Health & Senior Services to be sure we don't miss any important trends.
"In being thorough about this public health threat, we want to send a signal to residents that they, too, should be careful in finding and removing ticks quickly," Beckley added. "That will help send our case counts in the right direction - down."