Spreading The Word About Lyme Disease

May is officially designated as Lyme Disease Awareness Month because, according to the Lyme Disease Research Foundation, it is the “most commonly reported tick-borne disease in the United States.” 

Several years ago, when I was serving as a member of the Senate Task Force on Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases, as well as chairing the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, the Southern Tier was identified as a hotbed for Lyme disease, according to data released by the state Department of Health in 2016. 

There was a time when the alarm over Lyme and other tick-borne diseases was considered mostly a “downstate” concern, confined in and around the Hudson Valley and Long Island especially. 

No longer. For more than a decade, it has been a rapidly growing public health challenge throughout upstate New York and has drawn increasingly heightened warnings from public health officials. 

Lyme is a debilitating disease that needs to be taken seriously by everyone who enjoys the outdoors, even if that means doing yard work or gardening. 

Those afflicted by Lyme disease can endure years of frustration seeking diagnosis and treatment.  

New York State is now home to the second-highest number of confirmed Lyme disease cases in America. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are 500,000 new cases across the United States each year, which makes Lyme the nation’s third-most common bacterial infectious disease. 

In 2013, in response to the growing statewide alarm, the Senate Republican Majority conference at that time established a special task force on Lyme and tick-borne diseases. For the next several years, we set about reviewing research, consulting with experts, and holding public hearings as part of our work to develop legislation and other recommendations with the overriding goal of putting in place a statewide action plan to serve as a comprehensive roadmap for strengthening research and development, awareness and education, and diagnosis and treatment. 

The task force was successful between 2013-2018 in helping enhance New York’s response through increased state funding and the enactment of numerous new laws, including laws I co-sponsored as a task force member in 2016 to: 

  • Require DOH to design, develop, and disseminate an aggressive, comprehensive, and statewide public awareness, education, and prevention campaign to reduce the public’s exposure to Lyme and other tick-borne infectious diseases (Chapter 167); and  
  • Complement the statewide DOH campaign by requiring the development of age-appropriate instructional materials and tools made available to schools and libraries to help reach school-age children with the awareness and prevention message (Chapter 109). 

Unfortunately, the past few years in state government under all-Democrat control have brought a weakening of the state’s commitment to funding research, education, and prevention initiatives. Despite record-setting state budgets, former Governor Andrew Cuomo and current Governor Kathy Hochul, together with the Legislature’s Democrat supermajorities, have all but stalled the momentum that we had created surrounding New York’s response. 

This year, for example, despite repeated calls from our Senate GOP conference, Governor Hochul and the Democrat supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly failed to include any new funding, zero, in their respective state budget proposals. It signaled a glaring – and unacceptable — lack of commitment.  

Nevertheless, I continue to join legislative colleagues in the Senate and Assembly to continue doing whatever we can to put a spotlight on the need for ongoing investments in research, education, and prevention initiatives. 

Numerous advocates from around the state have joined us.  

Now is no time to ignore critical public health responses. Thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers suffer from Lyme Disease annually, yet in the context of the newly enacted state budget – the largest spending plan in New York’s history — state leaders essentially failed to offer even a penny more of funding to help combat the spread of these diseases.  

In the absence of executive leadership, it is always the Legislature’s responsibility to ensure the state’s overall response to the spread of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. They continue to fail.  

This important work needs to carry on, through a much more steady and sustainable commitment, particularly in the areas of reporting, testing and treatment, and education and awareness. 

For additional information on existing and ongoing state efforts, visit the DOH Lyme disease webpage at: https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/lyme/