Loudoun County is fighting back against the rising threat of Lyme disease.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to declare 2012 “Lyme Disease Awareness Year” in Loudoun. The supervisors also created a nine-member Lyme Disease Commission, which will implement a 10-point action plan to combat the disease in the county.

Tiny insect, big impact: Infected deer ticks were responsible for more than 200 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Loudoun County last year. Now the county is fighting back. (Lauree Feldman/GETTY IMAGES)

 Leesburg resident Christina Guida was one of more than a dozen residents who spoke to the supervisors about the impact of Lyme disease during a public input session before the vote. Guida, who said she has suffered from chronic Lyme disease for years, told the board that the illness had affected her life “physically, emotionally, financially.”

 The same is true for all Lyme patients, she said.

 “A lot of us live in fear – fear of just walking in grass, fear of owning a dog. I don’t go camping anymore. I don’t go hiking,” Guida said. “I see the numbers increasing around me… I’m fearful for all residents in this county.”

 Loudoun has one of the highest rates of Lyme infection in the United States, and the highest rate in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 200 confirmed cases of Lyme were reported in Loudoun last year – but the number of infections is likely much higher, as many cases have gone unrecognized or misdiagnosed, according to county officials and medical experts.

 Lyme disease – caused by bacteria that can be transmitted to people through the bite of an infected tick – thrives in rural and suburban areas where rodents, deer and other small animals are most likely to transfer the parasites to human hosts. Loudoun, with an abundance of parks and grassy areas, combined with a rising number of residents, has become a natural hot spot for the disease.

The board voted Tuesday to send much of the county’s proposed 10-point action plan to the county Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee for review, but supervisors did take some immediate action: a link on the home page of the county Web site will be created to easily direct visitors to information about Lyme, and the county will also solicit bids to apply insecticide sprays at several county-owned parks to help reduce the tick population in the spring. Those sites include Franklin Park, Woodgrove Park, Lucketts Community Park, Ashburn Park, Conklin Park, Phil Bolen Park, Neil Boone Park, Mickie Gordon Memorial Park and Claude Moore Park.

 Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), who co-sponsored the Lyme disease campaign along with Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) and Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg), said he found that Lyme disease was a critical issue for many voters during his campaign last year.

 “Lyme was an issue that was spoken to me about as often as any other issue that we dealt with,” he said. “That’s how serious it is.”

 Beyond the need to protect the health of Loudoun residents, Reid noted that there could also be economic consequences if the county continues to be known as a hotbed for Lyme.

 “If we don’t tackle this, we’re going to have people who are going to be afraid to come here,” he said. “This has been neglected for way too long.” 

 Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large), the last to address the issue before the board unanimously approved the motion, joked that he had been “jinxed” by the timing of the Lyme campaign: when he woke up Tuesday morning, he found he’d been bitten by a tick, he said.

 “Now that little area has a bull's-eye to it,” he said ruefully. “So I’ll be supporting this.”