Our Opinion: State comes up short on ticks, related illnesses

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As well as the state does in combatting mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit, it does an equally poor job in taking on ticks and the ailments like Lyme disease that they transmit. That has to change.

While Massachusetts invests $11 million annually on mosquito control it doesn't spend any money on the growing tick problem, according to a story in the April 19 Eagle by Beth Daley of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. This is the case even though at least 5,500 people are infected annually with tick diseases, many of which can be debilitating, and Berkshire County has the highest incidence of anaplasmosis, a tick-borne illness.

Part of the explanation is surely that mosquitoes, the painful plague of backyard picnics, are a more obvious problem. Ticks lie quietly in the fields and woods waiting for a victim to come by. It is easier to take on mosquitoes by spraying breeding grounds like standing water. In contrast, ticks are likely to show up anywhere and there is no tick-killing method that has been proven to be effective.

Rationales aside, there is no excuse for the state's lackluster response. A Lyme commission recommended a modest $300,000 investment for an education program but no funding has been forthcoming. The state cancelled a grant program to fund research into ticks and related diseases at UMass-Amherst's Laboratory of Medical Zoology. A $40,000 federal grant into Lyme disease is woefully inadequate.

This indifference largely mirrors the attitude of the medical community when Lyme disease first emerged and began to spread. Some of the symptoms, such as fatigue and joint pain, are vague and can be shared by a variety of other ailments. That initial resistance has now largely given way, but more research dollars are needed to explore the variety of tick-related diseases that, if not addressed immediately, largely through antibiotics, can affect the heart and nervous system and be difficult to resolve successfully.

Residents of the Berkshires and much of New England are left to their own devices when it comes to disease prevention. It is wise to wear long pants tucked into socks when walking through fields or woods. Deer ticks, the common carrier, are about the size of a poppy seed and not easy to spot after the parasites attach themselves to the flesh and begin transmitting pathogens through the bloodstream. Easier to spot is the resulting rash that looks like a bulls-eye, and early symptoms like headache, fatigue and fever should result in a doctor's appointment.

It would have been nice if the frigid winter had frozen the ticks deep in the ground but regrettably experts believe the deep snow cover acted as a cozy quilt. As global warming makes northern regions more accommodating to hazardous insects (see editorial below), government must do more to combat a growing health problem. Paying for prevention will be less costly than paying for treatment.


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