Pennsylvania had the most Lyme disease cases in the nation in 2009, 2011, and 2012, yet no state-run surveillance program for ticks exists.
A bill Gov. Corbett signed into law Thursday seeks to remedy that. The Lyme and Related Tick-Borne Disease Surveillance, Education, Prevention, and Treatment Act will establish a 20-member task force to develop educational and surveillance programs to be run by the Department of Health and other agencies.
"This is an underdiagnosed and undertreated disease," said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who sponsored the bill. Greenleaf's son contracted Lyme disease several years ago and was effectively treated by an infectious-disease doctor. But some people, he said, "have had less-fortunate experiences."
A lack of public awareness about tick-borne disease fuels misinformation and leads to delayed diagnoses. There are no signs near wooded areas warning the public about the danger of ticks and listing preventative measures, such as tucking in pants legs, said Julia Wagner, president of the PA Lyme Resource Network, which backed the bill.
In recent years, Wagner, of Lower Gwynedd, her husband, and their three children have all had a tick-borne disease.
"It felt like our whole world was falling apart," she said. "And it was."
Lyme disease can be caused by a bite from an infected tick. Symptoms include fever, headache, and, in some cases, a bull's-eye-shaped rash. About 300,000 Americans are diagnosed each year, according to 2013 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 4,146 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2012 in Pennsylvania. But tests for detecting Lyme disease can be inaccurate, said Greenleaf.
The task force will develop an educational program to inform health care professionals of the latest research and care options.
The task force will also develop a surveillance system that includes collecting ticks to identify hot spots for infection as well as the varying strains in circulation. State agencies will work with institutions such as East Stroudsburg University to analyze and publish surveillance data.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and was approved by a 195-2 vote in the House. The estimated cost is about $150,000, according to Greenleaf's staff.
To prevent Lyme, the CDC recommends:
Avoid wooded or bushy areas with high grass.
Use repellents that contain DEET on exposed skin and clothing.
Conduct a full-body tick check after coming in from outdoors.