Ledge Light Health District assembles task force to fight Lyme disease

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick. Ledge Light Health District has created a new regional task force to explore why Lyme disease rates in New London County are much higher than in other parts of the state and to come up with ways to help reduce cases going forward. (CDC via AP)
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick. Ledge Light Health District has created a new regional task force to explore why Lyme disease rates in New London County are much higher than in other parts of the state and to come up with ways to help reduce cases going forward. (CDC via AP)

New London — A group of about 20 local health workers, senior center employees, landscapers, school officials and town leaders is meeting once a month to find ways to bring down rates of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, which are reported at high rates in local towns compared with the rest of the state.

The Ledge Light Health District, which serves as the health department for the towns of East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, New London, Old Lyme, Waterford, Stonington and North Stonington, convened the group, which first met in January.

"We decided to bring them together and to really brainstorm all the possibilities for reaching the people that they serve," said Cindy Barry, Ledge Light's health program coordinator.

The group already has discussed some short-term solutions, including information about tick-borne illnesses in school and senior center newsletters, and distributing tick-deterring bug spray to landscaping workers and hiking groups.

Members will meet again every month until May to determine how to reach people in the district — especially those in Old Lyme, Stonington and Waterford, where the reported rates of Lyme disease are highest — and educate them about how to protect themselves against infection.

The group will reconvene in the fall and continue to develop long-term education efforts aimed at young children, the elderly and people who spend a lot of time outdoors — the three main groups at high risk of contracting Lyme disease.

While rates of Lyme disease are hard to track because of inconsistent reporting methods, Ledge Light epidemiologist Russell Melmed said records collected by the Department of Public Health show higher rates of reported Lyme disease in New London County than five other Connecticut counties.

In 2016, doctors and labs reported 250 confirmed or probable cases of Lyme disease in New London County to the state Department of Public Health, the third-highest rate after Fairfield and New Haven counties, which each had more than 300 cases.

The rate of cases of Lyme disease in New London County per 100,000 people was 91.2, the third-highest among counties in the state.

"Lyme disease is an issue in all our towns, it just happens to be at much higher rates there," Melmed said.

While the rates reported to the Department of Public Health have decreased in the past decade, Melmed said, the lower official numbers could reflect a drop-off in doctors or labs reporting Lyme disease.

Because a confirmed case of Lyme disease requires both a clinical diagnosis by a doctor and a positive lab test, all patients treated for the disease aren't necessarily reported to the Department of Public Health. And in 2002, he said, a federal grant ran out that had been funding DPH efforts to actively collect data on Lyme diagnoses from doctors and labs instead of waiting for them to report cases on their own.

With the end of that effort came a drastic drop in the number of reported cases in Connecticut, but that didn't necessarily reflect a change in the number of people getting Lyme, he said.

"Just because the rates have declined across the state and our region over the last couple years doesn't mean we're in a sustained period where we're not actively experiencing the disease more," he said.

Meanwhile, rates of babesiosis, another tick-borne illness that can cause flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening in elderly people or those with weak immune systems, are going up in New London County and are higher locally than the rest of the state.

In 2014, the rate of babesiosis reported to the DPH in New London County was 22.3 cases per 100,000 people, much higher than the state average of 4.8.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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