Every year, more than 300,000 Americans contract Lyme disease. Yet, the disease remains largely mysterious as well as difficult to treat, and no organized effort has been taken to prevent its spread in the U.S.
The potentially debilitating illness is contracted through the bite of an infected tick, and brings such a vast range of symptoms that many people go for years without a diagnosis or proper treatment. No vaccine or even a reliable test exists. Yet in France, which has a fraction of the number of cases, at 33,000 per year, the disease is being tackled seriously.
In 2016, France became the first country to release a national plan to address tick-borne diseases, and their comprehensive strategy is becoming a model for other countries. Canada released its own federal action plan to address Lyme this year, which borrows many of the ideas from the French plan. (All of the Canadian provinces have reported cases of Lyme disease, and the singer Avril Lavigne has been public about her prolonged battle with the disease, which has helped to raised awareness in her homeland.)
France is combining science, medicine, and education to create a multi-level awareness, prevention and treatment initiative that treats Lyme disease as a major public health problem. The strategy includes stepped-up surveillance of ticks, detailed data on infection rates and investment in research to create better diagnostic tests treatment protocols.
“If we do a good job at prevention, we’ll have fewer patients who end up seeking care and struggling in the medical system,” said Lucie Chouin, a public health official for the Greater Eastern region of France. “For me, prevention is part of a package; if we only do so much, and do not do anything upstream, the problem won’t be resolved.
Public education is key to prevention, and to that end, the country’s public health agency is running educational public service messages in print and on television that describe how the disease is contracted and how to prevent infection, as well as gives information on the range of symptoms that might be the sign of an infection.
The government is also encouraging people to report tick bites they or their pets have experienced by logging the sighting on a tick alert app that is available in French or English, for the many English-speaking tourists that descend on the French countryside, where ticks are abundant.
— Melle L. (@Pieuvrargentee) July 17, 2017
Lyme disease is spread through several species of ticks, which vary per continent. In Europe, the sheep tick and the castor bean tick are the primary vectors, while in the U.S., the black-legged tick and deer tick are the main culprits. Some of the ticks are so tiny — smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen — that they can attach themselves to a person, remain attached for the 36-48 hours needed to transmit infection, and then drop off, without ever attracting notice. About 50 percent of people will notice a bulls-eye rash surrounding the bite site.
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