Is Pennsylvania dragging feet on Lyme disease prevention?

Investigations

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Act 83 of 2014 created a Lyme disease task force which issued a 2015 report on tick-borne illnesses.

The report outlines several recommendations for how to protect Pennsylvanians from Lyme disease and other illnesses through prevention, education and awareness, and surveillance. 

Julia Wagner, president of the PA Lyme Resource Network, was on the task force.

“It was the first time Pennsylvania took the time to study the issues related to Lyme disease,” she said.

The report warns that “without proper research and surveillance, it would be difficult to stay ahead of this public health problem.” It says the “cost to Pennsylvania of doing nothing is considerable.”

Wagner says the state has been dragging its feet on implementing the recommendations.

“At the state level, we’ve got a golden opportunity to act and we really haven’t, and it’s a shame because the public is facing this threat without a lot of support from the state. It really is disconcerting on many different levels,” Wagner said.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health  (DOH), In the 2018-19 budget, Gov. Wolf asked for and received $2.5 million from the general fund for DOH to address Lyme disease. 

“I would really like to know what they are doing and I would really like to know where the money is,” said Wagner.

“We got the money when the budget was finalized last June. We hit the ground running and we have been working to develop those programs and implement them as well,” department spokeswoman April Hutcheson said.

The $2.5 million is being spent on education and public outreach, increasing testing capabilities, planning and prevention, and surveillance.

The Department of Environmental Protection received some of the funding to do tick drags and testing which is underway now.

“So we understand the types of ticks out there, how dense they are, and what they are carrying,” said Dr. Sharon Watkins, director of the Health Department’s Bureau of Epidemiology. 

Other programs, like physician training and education, are still in the planning stages.

“It’s still in review. It has been developed but not quite ready for primetime yet,” Watkins said. “We have developed a survey that will go out to providers soon to understand what they know about Lyme disease and where they are getting their information, and that will help us to provide some provider education back.”

$1.2 million will be spent on education and public outreach, promising more than 1,400 educational events. According to the report, children represent the highest risk group. Studies found high tick populations on school grounds.

“Today, as we know it, nothing has been rolled out by the Department of Health in terms of education,” said Wagner.

“They are underway now,” said Hutcheson “Our community health nurses have been working on those types of programs. What they do is they actually go into schools and are working with the school health nurses and they do programs for kids. Part of the funding we received is developing those programs.”

In the Midstate, presentations were held at West Perry High School, Camp Hill High School, HACC, and Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. There were a total of 33 held statewide. There are 500 school districts in Pennsylvania.

The PA Lyme Resource Network helped to develop an in-school education program called Dare to be Tick Aware. Wagner says it would have cost about $100,000. 

“It was reviewed, approved by the Department of Health and funding was stopped,” said Wagner

“There were some recommendations in that program that don’t follow CDC guidelines, and as a health agency, we must follow CDC guidelines,” said Hutcheson.

While some of the recommendations are still in the planning stages, the public will soon start to see public service announcements created by the Department of Health.

“We have a major multimedia campaign. That is going to be social media, TV spots, billboards, and advertising,” said Hutcheson. 

Wagner says the multimedia campaign is four years too late.

“400,000 new cases have been reported in Pennsylvania since then,” said Wagner. “We have got to do more in this state.”

Governor Wolf has requested another $2.5 million in the 2019-2020 budget. If it is included in the final budget, then it would be available to the department when that budget is enacted on July 1, 2019.

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