More Lyme hysteria from the board (better-living-through-chemistry department)

As it has become increasingly and embarrassingly evident that our intrepid Loudoun Board of Supervisors permitted itself to be used by a group of fringe fear-mongers to spread misinformation and pseudoscientific alarmism about Lyme disease, the supervisors have reacted by  . . . digging a deeper hole for themselves.

“Did Loudoun overreact on Lyme disease?” the Washington Post asks in a post on in its local politics blog highlighting realloudoun’s first account of the matter.

To briefly recap, here in Loudoun the No. 1 Lyme-disease fear-monger is none other than prominent creationism- and home-schooling advocate—and, not coincidentally, powerful local GOP pooh-bah—Michael Farris, “chancellor” of his very own Purcellville Bible college.

“Dr.” Farris, as he likes to style himself on occasion (after all, he does have a JD degree like every other lawyer, and the “D” does stand for “doctor”), has been recently touring the state with a traveling road show of anxiety-ridden hypochondriacs, quack doctors, and medical conspiracy theorists who claim that the medical “establishment” is covering up a Lyme “epidemic” and that only a special group of “Lyme-literate” medical practitioners (i.e., quacks like themselves) is equipped to diagnose and treat the disorder.

At the core of these fringe groups are a coterie of patients who insist that conventional antibiotic treatment has failed to cure them, and that they suffer from a special “chronic” type of Lyme disease, requiring extended care. The quacks oblige by confidently diagnosing whatever ails these patients—everything from bladder pain to insomnia to hoarseness—as Lyme disease. (Some of these fringe practitioners helpfully offer their own special “tests” which they claim detects Lyme disease that is missed by conventional laboratory testing. Many also have been promoting the thoroughly debunked idea that Lyme disease is spread from person to person.)

The CDC, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the American Lyme Disease Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other reputable groups have been working for years to counter this bogus medical quackery, which is exploiting vulnerable patients, promoting questionable and dangerous “treatments” such as long-term intravenous antibiotics, and spreading fear and misinformation.

So where did our intrepid Board of Supervisors turn to for sound scientific and medical advice on this topic? One guess.

In its recently adopted motion on “combating” Lyme disease and its resolution declaring 2012 “Lyme Disease Awareness Year,” the board in fact adopted almost verbatim several bogus assertions which you can find repeated all over the Internet by these fringe activist groups, not to mention just making a series of factual errors.

Among the Loudoun board’s scientifically false assertions:

“Loudoun County is at the epicenter of this health care endemic”

“We have a public health epidemic.”

I’m not sure what the “epicenter” of an “endemic” might be (any county with two or more confirmed Lyme cases is considered to be an endemic area, meaning the disease is present), but it is scientifically incorrect to term Loudoun’s situation an “epidemic.” Loudoun’s 261 reported Lyme cases last year (out of a population of over 300,000) places Loudoun’s incidence rate at less than 1/10 that of Columbia County, NY; 1/5 that of Dutchess County, NY; and less than 1/3 that of numerous counties throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and New England.

“The CDC estimates that only 10% of Lyme disease cases are actually reported;”

Actually the CDC has never said any such thing; this is a favorite bogus “fact” repeated by the fringe activist groups. Twenty years ago, before Lyme became a nationally notifiable disease (that began in 1992, not 1981 as the Board also mistakenly states in its resolution), two state health departments estimated that 8 to 12 cases went unreported for each case that was reported. But that was referring to a period when reporting was voluntary and haphazard. Since then, mandatory national reporting has also been supplemented by active surveillance by the CDC and state health authorities, and in fact the CDC notes in its explanation of Lyme statistics that while underreporting of course always occurs with any disease, in the case of Lyme there is also overreporting due to the fact that “some cases that are reported may be due to another cause.”

“WHEREAS, the lack of “Lyme literate” physicians in clinical practice in Loudoun County has resulted in frequent misdiagnosis and under-treatment of patients.”

In fact, Lyme disease is easily diagnosed and quickly and completely treated by any general practitioner by following the readily available consensus guidelines from IDSA published in 2006 and based on a complete review of the scientific literature and clinical practice. The very phrase “Lyme-literate” is a bogus invention of the fringe practitioners trying to promote themselves and their quack views about diagnosis and treatment.

Meanwhile, in his latest newsletter, Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin)—who seems to have a thing for juxtaposing pictures of himself with insects—gushingly informs us in his little article about the board’s fearless assault on Lyme disease that he and his staff have “discovered” a “wonderful resource of information”: namely, the website of one of these dubious patient–activist groups.

Geary could have offered a link to the CDC’s excellent website, or that of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, whose board includes world experts on epidemiology, infectious diseases, insect biology, and genetics. The local group Geary refers us to by contrast is run by a board whose affiliations are not individually revealed, but who are described as including “attorneys; contractors; lobbyists” and whose website includes helpful links to articles promoting dubious testing services, as well as the article of faith of all such groups, that Lyme patients are perennial victims.

Worse, the Board of Supervisors is now preparing to lend not only its prestige (such as it is) but the county’s budget to pursuing ineffective and panic-stricken measures in its fearless battle against Lyme disease, most notably by moving ahead with an unfunded plan to hose down county parks with insecticides.

Remarkably, for a board so concerned with shaving hundredths of pennies off the tax rate by eliminating programs such as the Master Gardeners (who provided thousands of hours of free advice to residents on, among other things, reducing pesticide use on lawns) and by axing funding for cultural organizations such as the Loudoun Symphony, the board decided not to trouble its pretty little heads about where the money will come from to pay for this vital chemical crusade against Lyme disease. The board’s motion states:

“Vice Chairman Clarke, Supervisor Higgins, and Supervisor Reid understand that there will be a financial cost associated with the implementation of this plan that is yet to be determined.”

By the strangest coincidence, however, Clarke, Higgins, and Reid had in hand a complete proposal that someone solicited from Orkin Pest Company in Sterling. The Orkin men offer to spray six highly scientifically selected parks in the county with a few hundred gallons of a pesticide called Talstar P this year at a cost of $22,000 (see Ken’s $22,000 Lyme Hysteria Program (pdf) here).

Last time I checked, don’t government agencies usually seek more than one bid before spending that kind of dough? And since when do supervisors start getting in on the contracting process? (The Orkin proposal, though not its cost, was explicitly referenced by name in the March 20 motion from Clarke, Reid, and Higgins.)

More to the point, the effectiveness of spraying to control Lyme disease is far from proven. The CDC advises that far safer and more effective methods are readily available:

Tick populations around homes and in recreational areas can be reduced 50%–90% through simple landscaping practices such as removing brush and leaf litter or creating a buffer zone of wood chips or gravel between forest and lawn or recreational areas.

Presumably the Parks and Recreation department will simply have to cut some of its actual programs to come up with the 22 grand, since the board in its wisdom did not appropriate any funds to pay for this initiative they’ve ordered up.

Of course, $22,000 might also have paid to keep all of the cultural and community programs’ funding intact that the board insisted it could not afford.

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