Necn Investigates: Fighting Ticks, Lyme Disease and Legislature

Eric Anderson does everything he can to ward off ticks - monthly spraying of his Norfolk, Massachusetts, property, cutting the grass short, wearing long pants and constantly checking his body for the invasive creatures, including some no bigger than a poppy seed.

"I never saw a bull's-eye," he said. "I never pulled a tick off me."

Anderson, a computer programmer and amateur beekeeper, has been diagnosed with Lyme disease twice - enduring fever, aches, pains, even facial paralysis.

"It took about three or four months for my face to regain function," he said. "You know, it was saggy on one side."

Public health officials had thought there were about 5,500 Bay Staters like Anderson infected with Lyme disease each year. But the Centers for Disease Control is now using a new way of measuring the diagnoses and say that number is probably 10 times higher, making Massachusetts one of the five worst states for Lyme in the country, with about 55,000 people infected a year.

"It's off the charts," said Larry Dapsis of the Barnstable County Deer Tick Program. "It's a public health crisis."

The program collects ticks for testing, gathers data and teaches Cape Cod residents how to protect themselves.

"I need to talk more to soccer moms and soccer dads, because kids aged 5-9 have the highest incidence rate of Lyme in the state," said Dapsis.

There are at least six tick-borne diseases in Massachusetts, and experts expect more soon. A new tick - the Lone Star tick - was found on Cape Cod last year, and new, more established pathogens are gaining ground like babesia.

"It's kind of like getting malaria. It's a parasite that invades your red blood cells and unlike Lyme can be directly fatal.

Despite the alarming trends, Dapsis and other critics say, the state isn't doing enough to help protect its citizens.

Lyme disease potentially affects tens of thousands every year in Massachusetts, and yet there are no state funds are specifically earmarked for prevention, treatment or education of tick-borne diseases.

"The state has a responsibility to the people that live here," said Dapsis. "Simple as that."

Take the state's mosquito programs - each year, it spends $11 million dollars spraying, counting and educating the public on West Nile Virus and Triple E. While important, critics say those diseases affect a few dozen people a year.

"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon," said Dr. Catherine Brown, the state's public health veterinarian.

While she acknowledges there is no specific line item in the budget dedicated to tick-borne illnesses, Brown insists DPH staff works hard to educate residents on how to protect themselves from tick bites.

She points to last year's public awareness campaign, available to anyone on their website. The department did use federal dollars to create it, but she says they do plenty of other outreach.

"All of us, at various times, are working on Lyme disease," she said. "This remains a real priority of the department."

"The reality is, if it don't have a title and it doesn't have a name , it doesn't rise to the top of the priority list," said Massachusetts Rep. Carolyn Dykema, who calls the state's approach too passive.

The Holliston Democrat has tried three times to get a bill passed that would let cities and town use state local aid for ticks.

"We need to be connecting with people where they are, which is in their communities, in their neighborhoods," said Dykema.

A special commission that formed two years ago recommended the state spend $300,000 to launch a Lyme-specific education program, but in a joint investigation with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, necn learned that the state never did.

"I think you need to talk to the legislature about the way they choose to sort of allocate funding," said Brown.

The politics don't interest Anderson. He just wants to save others from what he endured.

"It's too bad that you have to get it before you become aware and educated on it," he said.

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