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With deer tick populations in Tiverton and other communities up 80 percent over 2011 numbers, Sen. Jack Reed met with local and national health experts on Monday to devise an initiative that would augment research, education, and outreach to individuals and families, and increase coordination among health professionals and government agencies.
Scientists at the University of Rhode Island reported staggering increases in tick population numbers across the state, with the highest growth rates in Tiverton, East Greenwich, Johnston and Bristol.
“Lyme disease is a serious health problem and infected ticks are being found in greater numbers in Rhode Island and other parts of the country," said Reed, a member of the Appropriations Committee, who last year helped secure $28 million in federal funding for Lyme disease research. "It is important for people to be aware and know what they can do to protect themselves and their families. We also want to ensure doctors and nurses have the latest tools and training they need to properly diagnose and treat patients. I am working to boost federal research and coordination to help prevent Lyme disease and strengthen surveillance of tick-borne illnesses."
According to research by Dr. Thomas Mather, director of the URI Center for Vector-Borne Disease and the TickEncounter Resource Center, the university's tick surveillance team completed its initial round of tick sampling at all 60 of the sites that have been monitored for the past 18 years. Deer tick numbers in Rhode Island are up 80 percent over 2011 levels and 142 percent above the previous five-year average - meaning that the risk of contracting Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases is especially high this summer.
Mather said tick populations are thriving thanks to particularly high humidity levels during May and June. He warned that continued heat and humidity could lead to even larger bumps in population as the summer continues.
"We've had perfect tick weather during May and June, which means that few ticks were killed off, and that's keeping the numbers high throughout the region for now," Mather said in a statement.
Tick season doesn't peak until early fall and already the Centers for Disease Control reported more than 5,421 cases of Lyme disease were diagnosed nationwide, compared with 4,667 at the same time last year.
The risk of Rhode Islanders contracting the disease is more than 3 times higher than the national incidence rate.
Nationally, the CDC estimates about 20,000 cases of Lyme disease are diagnosed and reported annually in the U.S., but says the actual number of cases could be up to 10 times that amount because the disease is often undiagnosed or unreported.
“Wearing the best tick repellent is as easy as getting dressed in the morning,” Mather said, referring to clothing treated with a repellent containing Permethrin.
Legislation co-authored by Reed would develop more accurate and time-sensitive diagnostic tools to strengthen surveillance and reporting of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses. It would also aim to streamline coordination between federal agencies and private organizations addressing tick-borne illnesses through the establishment of a Tick-Borne Disease Advisory Committee.
Reed also wants to increase education to improve prevention efforts.
Reed helped to secure $1.3 million in federal appropriations to help URI researchers examine ways to cut down Lyme disease infection rates.
The TickEncounter website, www.tickencounter.org, has rapidly become one of the nation’s premier tick bite protection resources and provides a growing catalog of TickSmart tools, including a popular, interactive tick identification chart, shower cards for prompting daily tick checks, tick encounter risk maps, and many other TickSmart strategies for protecting yourself, your pets and your yard from ticks.