What state and Berkshire officials are doing to educate residents on Lyme disease


PITTSFIELD -- For Mary-Jane Sackett, the public health nurse for the Pittsfield Board of Health, it is crucial that the general public be as educated as possible about prevention of and treatment for Lyme disease.

As the summer heats up and Berkshire residents and visitors alike leave the house and enjoy the outdoors, Sackett has been doing her best to proliferate information about the most common tickborne disease in North America.

Earlier this year, Sackett held education sessions about the disease around the area, including one in May during the year's first Third Thursday festival in downtown Pittsfield.

"The public really needs to be vigilant. They need to know how to prevent Lyme disease, protect themselves and, most importantly, how to recognize if they even have a tick bite," Sackett said.

Through the aforementioned information sessions, the distribution of public health fact sheets released through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and even outreach to wider audiences of people through social media, Sackett and her department have been trying to remain as vigilant as they can about educating the public about the disease.

It is this emphasis on education about disease symptoms and prevention that has been on the minds of public health officials throughout the state in light of a comprehensive special legislative commission report released on Feb. 28. Comprised of 21 members including average citizens, researchers, Lyme disease activists and state legislators, the commission cited raising awareness about the disease as the report's key goal.

Beyond some of the work that individual departments like the Pittsfield Board of Health are doing to spread the word about Lyme disease, other groups are working on more countywide initiatives.

According to Laura Kittross, the director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association, the Public Health Nursing Program is in the process of developing a mosquito and tickborne illness public education awareness program.

The program falls under the Berkshire Public Health Alliance, a collaborative formed by 21 county communities through an Intermunicipal Agreement in 2011.

It is designed to share public health services between communities, Kittross wrote in an email to The Eagle.

Kittross wrote that the alliance kicked off the seminar program earlier this month in Washington, with plans for future presentations in Great Barrington, and possibly Clarksburg or Egremont later in the summer.

Sackett said it is crucial that people learn the essentials about disease prevention -- "no-brainer things" that most people forget about when they go on a hike or head into the woods.

"Always do a tick check whenever you come indoors. If you find something, always contact your doctor. Really common sense things," Sackett said.

Tick removal is another important factor in the public education campaign, Sackett said. "Don't wait for them to self-detach, and don't remove them using nail polish, or vaseline or dish detergent," Sackett said. "A big part of educating them is to know how to remove them."

What is the correct method? Sackett said it's best to use tweezers to pull the tick straight up and off the the skin without too much twisting to avoid leaving portions of its mouth parts underneath the surface of the skin.

According to David Stainbrook, the deer and moose project leader at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, a lot can be done from home to limit the tick population and protect against Lyme disease.

"People can try to limit the types of habitat for ticks around their houses," Stainbrook said. "Keep your grass mowed low without having tall grass nearby your house."

Concerns over the regularity of the disease are backed up by the commission's report. The report cites a 2008 study that found Massachusetts ranked second in "most highly endemic states."

It is fairly widespread. According to the report, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health monitors the frequency of Lyme disease through the collection of reports from laboratory testing and healthcare providers. The department receives about 12,000 to 14,000 Lyme-positive lab results per year, while clinical results yield about 2,000 to 4,000 positive, and 1,000 probable cases each year, respectively.

Sackett said she tries to distribute all of this information as widely as possible, but has not seen much change in education methods since the report was released about four months ago. "I was looking through Facebook posts the other day and noticed that people in general do seem more aware now about the disease," Sackett said. "There is more awareness, and people are recognizing that Lyme can be a very debilitating disease. It all starts with personal protection. Spraying your clothes, tucking in your socks, checking for ticks -- it all goes back to each person."


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