The Illinois Senate today is scheduled to vote on legislation that hasn't made major headlines, but has the potential to someday make a real difference in the quality of life for thousands of Illinoisans who love the outdoors.
The legislation -- House Bill 4515, which passed the House overwhelmingly last month -- would create a program within the state health department focusing on surveillance, prevention and education about the dangers of Lyme disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 300,000 cases of the tick-borne infection occur each year, and if there is good news for Illinois, it is that we are not among the 14 states -- mostly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest -- that account for 95 percent of those infections. However, that is not to suggest there is no cause for concern, perhaps even alarm, here. Since 2006, according to CDC statistics, the number of infections reported annually has more than doubled. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 237 Illinoisans contracted the disease, but the average over the previous five years was a reported 260 infections, with a high in 2013 of 337. And for the individuals who suffer from it, Lyme disease can be a life-altering experience.
Ask Chad Dawes. The Montgomery resident who spoke with our Chacour Koop for a story last weekend, has suffered from Lyme disease for more than 10 years. Its classic symptoms are debilitating fatigue, muscle weakness and memory loss. Once contracted, it can be a lifelong condition. It has no known cure and limited treatments. For that reason, a key provision of HB 4515 freeing doctors to prescribe experimental treatments can offer hope and support for Lyme sufferers, especially those like Kristen Gasser, of Aurora, who has twice contracted the disease and, along with her husband, researches treatments.
"You have to acknowledge that this is something that may not ever go away, but you can do things that can improve your symptoms and the way you feel," Gasser said.
At present, the best known deterrent against the spread of Lyme disease is prevention. Experts tell people who hike, camp, hunt or otherwise enjoy the outdoors in the spring and summer to wear light-colored protective clothing, apply insect repellent containing DEET, picaridi or IR3535, and check themselves and their children for ticks frequently.
Encouraging education about the symptoms, causes and spread of Lyme disease is another important function of HR 4515. The bill, which has strong support from both parties, also calls for maintaining specific statistics on Lyme infections, increased education initiatives and establishment of a task force to oversee the work and make recommendations. This may help reduce the number of people who get the disease, but also can provide those already suffering from it some hope for relief, a commodity currently in very short supply.