East Enders give task force an earful on tick crisis

10/18/2012 8:00 AM |

COURTESY PHOTO | Jen Stress, a former program assistant with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, drags a flagging cloth through a field to survey area tick numbers.

East Enders who have suffered with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases had their chance Oct. 10 to voice their frustrations to a new county task force charged with coming up with concrete steps to control the spread of the diseases.

Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine convened the 16-member Tick & Vector-Borne Disease Task Force earlier this fall in an attempt to focus on the health crisis facing the East End.

During the committee’s public hearing at the Southold Recreation Center in Peconic last Wednesday, task force members got an earful from people who have suffered for years from chronic Lyme Disease, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other serious illnesses.

Many in attendance said they’ve had difficulty getting doctors to take their chronic symptoms seriously and put them on the long-term antibiotics they need to go about their lives.

Still others told stories of years — and sometimes decades — of misdiagnoses before their illness was correctly identified as Lyme disease.

“The insurance companies don’t want to pay for it …. Doctors that know what to do and have the guts to do it are afraid,” said Sue Ulrich of Shirley. “You don’t need any of those degrees to know you are sick.”

“If you’re a tourist, you should come here in a tank and don’t get out,” said Ugo Polla of Cutchogue, adding that ticks abound in vineyards and other tourist destinations. “Have the wine delivered, drink it and get out,” he said.

“It seems like we just keep studying these things. We need action,” said Hugh Switzer of Peconic. “We need support for our supervisor and board for actions necessary to get rid of deer. We have friends who no longer want to visit with us. They say, ‘Why would I want to come if every time I go outside I have to check for ticks?’ Our children won’t bring our grandchildren to see us.”

Numerous people told the task force horror stories of their children’s lives after they were bitten by ticks.

Jen Brown of North Haven told the task force that her son was first bitten by a tick at age 2. Now 5, he has been through weeks of hospitalization and has had more than a thousand brain seizures.

“He’s currently so fragile the infection cannot be treated because of the seizures,” she said.

Dr. John Rasweiler, a retired medical school professor who studied mammalian biology, said “deer are a terrible, terrible problem.”

Dr. Rasweiler, who serves on the town’s deer management committee, said last year only 382 of the approximately 10,000 deer in Southold were killed by hunters.

“I’m sorry. It’s just not cutting the mustard,” he said of Southold’s deer hunting program.

Dr. Rasweiler suggested that car insurance companies could pay for more aggressive deer management programs through a special surcharge on local car insurance bills. He said he had researched the cost of deer-related car accidents, which he estimated at about $200 million in New York State each year.

“This could pay for the program, and in the process take care of the problem with ticks and environmental damage” caused by deer, he said.

Supervisor Scott Russell said that in order to have a truly effective deer hunt, he needs the state to change the law to allow hunters to bait deer.

He said he has been pressuring local representatives in the state Legislature to introduce such a bill. Once it’s introduced, he said, he’d like Southold residents to launch a letter writing and phone call campaign in support of the measure.

“We have the hunters, the [meat] cooler and wildlife butchers. We need legislation allowing us to bait,” he said. “We need to have some flexibility at the state level.”

byoung@timesreview.com

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