Ahead of what is projected to be one of the worst summers for tick-borne diseases in years in Westchester and Rockland Counties, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer today urged, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to double-down on efforts to fully implement new laws, passed by Congress last year, that will significantly increase research, vaccine development and treatment strategies to help stamp out tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease. Schumer said any delay in federal action will allow newly emerging disease like Powassan, which is even deadlier than Lyme disease, to impact already highly vulnerable areas like Westchester, Rockland and the entire Hudson Valley region.
Lyme disease and newly emerging diseases like Powassan are in a sprint to spread this summer, but the federal response to combat this trend is moving along at a snail’s pace. We must do more, and we must do more now to protect kids and families,” said Senator Schumer. “In times like these, it is imperative that we do all that we can to halt the continued spread of these tick-borne diseases. That’s why I am urging HHS Secretary Tom Price to fully implement the already-passed legislation within the 21st Century Cures Act, to ensure that we are making a sufficient attempt at ridding ourselves of these persistent diseases. There is no more time to waste, and DHHS must step up their game.”
Schumer has long pushed for federal funding for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of Lyme, which has seen an increase in cases across New York State. In 2013, in Westchester County, Schumer called on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to immediately allocate resources towards the study, prevention, and treatment of Lyme and the emerging Powassan virus threat in the Hudson Valley. Last year, Schumer successfully pushed to pass this bill; however, its language has not yet been totally enacted.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection carried by deer ticks, which can be transmitted by a bite to a human or animal host. If left untreated, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi travels through the bloodstream, manifests itself in body tissues, and causes mild or severe symptoms, depending on the case. Lyme disease begins as a rash at the location of the tick bite. It then spreads to the nervous system and joints. Early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment is crucial to recovery. With early diagnosis, Lyme disease is cured almost 100% of the time. The disease is most prevalent on the Upper East Coast and Midwest, especially in densely wooded areas with an aptitude for humidity.
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Lyme disease is extremely prevalent in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties, with over 9,900 reported cases over the past 15 years. Westchester County has had just under half of those cases alone. Recent trends have shown that Lyme disease infections in Westchester and Rockland have been rising steadily over the past four years, reaching a peak for those time frames in the last recorded year, 2015.
Another disease, transmitted like Lyme, is called Powassan Virus (POW). After the initial bite, the disease usually takes one week to one month to reveal itself. People with the disease need to be hospitalized as soon as possible and immediately put on to respiratory support and IV fluids. Minor or massive brain swelling may also occur. No vaccines or specific treatments currently exist for POW, however there are methods for prevention, including: staying out of wooded or bushy areas that contain high grass, the use of insect repellent/DEET, a bath or shower within 2 hours of being in a wooded area, and full-body tick checks for both yourself and any pet that may have travelled with you.
There have been approximately 75 cases of POW in the last decade, 16 of which were in New York. As of 2013, at least three Putnam County residents and one Westchester resident were diagnosed with the virus. According to a 2013 study by Dupuis et al, the deer tick virus, a genetically and ecologically distinct lineage of Powassan virus, was identified each year from 2007 to 2012, in nymphal and adult l.scapularis collected from the Hudson Valley. 58 tick pools were positive for virus and/or RNA Infection rates were higher in adult ticks collected from areas east of the Hudson River.
Schumer explained that the passed legislation aims to continue to research methods for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of tick-borne diseases, including Lyme. In addition, the bill establishes a working group to make recommendations on existing programs and research and to prepare a report summarizing these recommendations as well as current federal research efforts related to Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. Ultimately, the bill aims to research, identify, and treat the disease, as well as launch a national response to significantly enhance the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) ability to stop the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Under the bill, HHS must coordinate federal activities related to tick-borne diseases and conduct or support activities related to tick-borne diseases, including:
- Research on strategies for the control of ticks,
- Exploring causes, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of tick-borne diseases,
- Epidemiological research, and
- Determining the gaps in existing research.
Schumer was joined by Mayor Noam Bramson, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Bill Zimmerman, and Professor of Medicine, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases & Vice Chairman of the Department of Medicine at NYMC Gary Wormser, M.D.
“As Americans spend more and more time enjoying the outdoors, each year, we need more research to prevent and treat Lyme and other tick-borne diseases,” said Dr. Robert W. Amler, Dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice and Institute of Public Health, Professor of Public Health, Pediatrics, and Environmental Health Science at New York Medical College in Valhalla. “And much of that important work is done right here, at New York Medical College.”
“We are grateful that Senator Schumer has continued to advocate for the residents who are at risk for Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses across New York, throughout the Hudson Valley, and right here in New Rochelle. Our town prides itself in maintaining a healthy community that promotes wellness through education and awareness. We look forward to working with the Senator to ensure that the projected increase in Westchester tick populations does not impede on the community that we continue to build upon together,” said New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson.
“There are 5 deer tick transmitted infections in our geographic area, but many people are only aware of Lyme disease. All require more research but the rapid emergence of babesiosis in particular in this region, along with the potential severity of this illness, should certainly attract more awareness and research funding,” said Dr. Gary P. Wormser, Chief, Division of Infectious Diseases, Vice Chairman, Department of Medicine, Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Pharmacology at New York Medical College in Valhalla.
Schumer made this push as the CDC, and other tick-borne disease experts predict that this summer could be one of the worst when it comes to the population of ticks.
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