WILKES-BARRE — Pennsylvania still has a target on its back, and the threat is growing.
Its predator? A blood-sucking disease carrier not much bigger than one of the printed letters in this sentence.
But state officials hope new legislation will help fight back against the blacklegged or deer tick, which has carried Lyme Disease across the commonwealth, placing Pennsylvania among the hardest-hit states for the painful ailment.
Senate Bill 177, which was expected to be signed by Gov. Tom Corbett late Thursday or sometime today, will create a task force within the state Department of Health to educate the public about Lyme disease and conduct a tick surveillance program across Pennsylvania.
“Lyme Disease is reaching epidemic proportions in the Commonwealth,” said Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery/Bucks, who sponsored the bill in hopes that “we can more closely monitor Lyme carrying ticks and help people avoid this debilitating disease.”
There were more than 4,100 cases across Pennsylvania in 2012, according to state and federal statistics.
A release from Greenleaf’s office pointed out that the state ranked highest in the country in the number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2009, 2011 and 2012. From 2002 to 2012, Pennsylvania reported a total of 46,178 confirmed cases of Lyme disease, the document added.
State statistics show that Luzerne County’s number of reported cases jumped from 52 in 2012 to 104 in 2013. Detailed figures for this year to date are not yet available.
Greenleaf said the task force would develop a public education program and coordinate its efforts with the state Game Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Department of Education to reach outdoorsman, visitors to state parks, and students.
The task force will investigate and make recommendations to the Health Department regarding surveillance and prevention of Lyme disease as well as development of a general public and health care professional information and education program, Greenleaf said.
As the disease continues its march across the state, more families are experiencing its horrors, as the daughter of one recently-affected Luzerne County resident told The Times Leader on Thursday.
“She told the nurse it’s more painful than having a baby,” Janice Oko said of her mother, Janice Spayder, who is undergoing treatment for Lyme Disease after being diagnosed last week.
Both women live in Plains Township.
Like many people across Pennsylvania, Oko said her family had never been affected by the disease before.
“And unfortunately my mother is in her 70s,” Oko said, adding, “and she’s been healthier than me.”
Hard to diagnose
Spayder’s case also demonstrated two characteristics not uncommon among Lyme sufferers: she never saw the parasite which bit her, Oko said, and it was initially not diagnosed as Lyme.
“She doesn’t know if she had a tick on her,” Oko said.
Oko said her mother believes she may have contracted the disease June 12 while cleaning out a relatives’ home in Bear Creek earlier this month, including some time out in the yard.
Spayder soon developed body aches that rapidly intensified, her daughter said.
“As soon as I came back from there that night, I was staggering around.”
Spayder said her brother asked if she had a rash, and she noticed a bull’s-eye rash on her arm.
Spayder went to her family doctor, but was still “extremely, extremely sick” the next day.
“He thought I had a flu, a virus,” Spayder said Thursday night. “At that point nobody knew what it was.”
Staggering and woozy, Spayder’s symptoms soon included sharp pain in one leg.
“She was in excruciating pain,” Oko said of her mother.
A trip to an urgent care facility followed, and then the emergency room.
“Initially, they didn’t think Lyme,” Oko said, adding that sciatica — pain radiating along the sciatic nerve in the lower body — was discussed as a possible source of Spayder’s agony.
“It mimics that,” Spayder said.
Unconvinced, “we made them do a Lyme test,” Oko said.
The next day, the women’s suspicions were confirmed, and Spayder is undergoing treatment including a lengthy course of antibiotics that could last as much as three weeks, as well as medication for fluid in her leg.
“I was just lucky. A lot of people can go a year or more without knowing what they have,” Spayder said.
“It’s the most horrible disease you want to get.”
She was glad to hear about the new legislation.
“If they can do something about it to help people, that would be great,” she said.