Group to Target Lyme

Roanoke Times-

Group to target Lyme disease

The governor set up a task force for the tick-borne disease, which is on the rise in Virginia.

By Beth Macy


Gov. Bob McDonnell stepped into the contentious topic of Lyme disease Friday when he commissioned a task force to explore prevention and treatment of the disease.

The task force was announced by the secretary of health and human resources, Dr. Bill Hazel, who cautioned that Lyme is on the rise in Virginia.

More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed statewide so far this year, 65 of them in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

The tick-borne disease has been on the upswing in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in recent years. It wasn't until June that the state health department held a news conference to alert Western Virginia about the spread of Lyme, which is transmitted by black-legged deer ticks.

The announcement thrilled Monte Skall, president of the McLean-based National Capital Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Association.

"I think the intentions of the task force are in the right place," Skall said.

Her group unsuccessfully lobbied the Virginia General Assembly for legislation that would have protected so-called "Lyme-literate" doctors who prescribe long-term antibiotics to patients they diagnose as having chronic Lyme -- a physically and neurologically crippling illness that occurs when acute Lyme isn't treated early or strongly enough, they say.

But most mainstream medical practitioners dismiss the disease, cautioning that long-term antibiotic treatments are ineffective and dangerous. They argue that research -- not politics -- should dictate treatment.

"The disease is not medically proven," said Dr. Stephanie Nagy-Agren, an infectious disease specialist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem. "I think chronic Lyme seems to be an idea that's infectious."

While New River Health District Director Dr. Jody Hershey cautions that acute Lyme is on the rise, he, too, argues that current evidence-based research doesn't support the treatment of chronic Lyme with long-term antibiotics.

"Perhaps more research will come out later on, but, for now, we have to use the scientific data we have," he said.

Del. Tom Rust, R-Fairfax County, who sponsored the doctor-protection bill, said he hopes the task force will help him build support for the bill, which he plans to reintroduce, with revisions, next session.

"I suspect it will become a huge thing here," Rust said, as it has in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California -- other states that passed doctor-protection laws.

"People are passionate about it. They have folks with serious illnesses who don't feel they're being treated properly, and it's not going to go away."

As Pearisburg Lyme-patient advocate Mauricia Shanks puts it: "No one's sympathetic until they've watched a loved one go through the misery of Lyme disease."

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