HHS Working Group Calls for Tick-Borne Disease Strategic Plan

The Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, a federal advisory committee established by Congress in the 21st Century Cures Act, issued its first report Nov. 14.

The Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, an HHS advisory committee established by Congress in the 21st Century Cures Act, issued its first report Nov. 14. The document recommends that the National Institutes of Health create an NIH tick-borne disease strategic plan to address these diseases, including all stages of Lyme disease; that funding be dedicated within CDC to study babesiosis incidence; that the Department of Defense begin a study of tick-borne disease incidence among active-duty service members and their dependents; and that the Veterans Administration begin a study of tick-borne disease incidence and prevalence among veterans and eligible family members.

The DoD recommendation says the department should compile data on the impact of tick-borne diseases on military readiness and should create education and preparedness programs that address the unique risks service members face during training and on deployment and by their families.

The working group consists of 14 people appointed by the HHS secretary in December 2017. They include scientists, physicians, patients, patient advocates, and representatives of HHS, DoD, and the Office of Management and Budget.

Their report calls Lyme disease a growing public health threat, with about 300,000 new cases reported in the United States every year. A map of U.S. states in the report indicates the hardest-hit states, those reporting more than 12,856 cases each in 2004-2016, include Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maine.

Most Lyme disease patients who are diagnosed and treated early can fully recover, but 10-20 percent of patients suffer from persistent symptoms, which for some are chronic and disabling. The report says while studies indicate Lyme disease costs approximately $1.3 billion annually in direct medical costs in the United States, "a comprehensive understanding of the full economic and societal cost remains unknown. It is likely orders of magnitude higher and potentially a $50- to $100-billion-dollar problem for the United States, although more research is needed."

On Nov. 14, CDC reported that new data show tick-borne diseases are again on the rise, and that in 2017, state and local health departments reported a record number of cases of tick-borne disease to CDC. Cases of Lyme disease, anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis, spotted fever rickettsiosis (including Rocky Mountain spotted fever), babesiosis, tularemia, and Powassan virus disease all increased—from 48,610 cases in 2016 to 59,349 cases in 2017. However, the 2017 data capture only a fraction of the number of people with tick-borne illnesses, according to CDC. According to the agency, between 2004 and 2016, the number of reported cases of tick-borne disease doubled and researchers discovered seven new tick-borne pathogens that infect people. The new data are from the Notifiable Disease Surveillance System.

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