Loudoun County is fighting back against the rising threat of Lyme disease.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to declare 2012 “Lyme Disease Awareness Year” in Loudoun. The supervisors also created a nine-member Lyme Disease Commission, made up of board-appointed county residents and health-care professionals, to focus on Lyme disease prevention and education efforts.
Leesburg resident Christina Guida was one of more than a dozen residents who spoke to the supervisors about the effects of Lyme disease at a public hearing before the vote. Guida, who said she has suffered from chronic Lyme disease for years, told the board that the illness has affected her life “physically, emotionally, financially.”
She described the psychological toll of the disease on patients.
“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 disease infection in the United States, and the highest rate in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 250 confirmed cases of Lyme disease were reported in Loudoun last year, but the number of infections might be much higher, because many cases go unrecognized or misdiagnosed, county officials and medical experts said.
The first sign of infection, which is caused by bacteria that can be transmitted when people are bitten by an infected tick, is often a “bull’s-eye” rash at the site of the bite. Some patients might also experience flulike symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue and muscle or joint pain in the weeks after infection. Without prompt diagnosis and treatment with
antibiotics, other chronic complications can eventually develop, including heart problems, co-infections, joint pain and nervous system disorders.
The illness is particularly prevalent in rural and suburban areas where rodents, deer and other animals are likely to transfer the parasites to people. Loudoun, with an abundance of parks and grassy areas neighbored by a growing number of residents, has become a prime spot for the disease.
At the public hearing Tuesday, a few speakers expressed concern about the environmental effects of methods used to kill infected ticks, including insecticide sprays and deer feeders that apply a pesticide to the ears, heads, necks and shoulders of deer as they feed. But the majority of residents who addressed the board were overwhelmingly in support of Loudoun’s proposed 10-point action plan to fight the spread of the disease.
David Stewart, a physician from Round Hill, said he was pleased to see the board addressing the issue. He also urged the supervisors to consider their actions carefully, particularly with important choices such as which insecticide to use.
“I support the proposal set forth; however, I urge you to be deliberate, transparent and inclusive of those of us who have been affected by Lyme,” he said.
Most of the items on the proposed action plan, which includes a number of Lyme disease prevention and education outreach initiatives, will first be reviewed by the county’s Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee. But supervisors did take immediate action on other aspects of the campaign: A link was placed prominently on the home page of the county Web site to direct visitors to information about Lyme disease, and the county will solicit bids to apply insecticide sprays at several county-owned parks to help reduce the tick population this spring.
According to the board’s direction, the cost of the spraying will not exceed $20,000. Spraying is planned for 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 plan along with Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) and Supervisor Kenneth “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 said, there could also be economic consequences if the county continues to be known as a hotbed for Lyme disease.
“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 express his support for the plan before the board unanimously approved the motion, joked that he had been “jinxed” by the timing of the Lyme disease campaign: When he woke up Tuesday morning, he found he had been bitten by a tick, he said.
“Now that little area has a bull’s-eye to it,” he said. “So I’ll be supporting this.”
To learn about the second annual Loudoun Lyme 5K race, which will be May 6 at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne, go to www.loudounlyme.org.