Ridgefield’s BLAST Lyme a model for statewide attack

In keeping with its public awareness mission, the BLAST Lyme disease program had a booth at the July 18 Summerfest celebration on Main Street From left are the mannequin known as Tick Check Barbie, on loan for the day from the WestConn Tick Research Lab), and volunteers Jennifer Reid, Rich Braaten and Karen Gaudian. — Neeta Connally photo

In keeping with its public awareness mission, the BLAST Lyme disease program had a booth at the July 18 Summerfest celebration on Main Street From left are the mannequin known as Tick Check Barbie, on loan for the day from the WestConn Tick Research Lab), and volunteers Jennifer Reid, Rich Braaten and Karen Gaudian. — Neeta Connally photo

The BLAST Lyme disease program — a mostly volunteer prevention effort started in Ridgefield, and based here — has received state financing to advance awareness of Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections.

The Connecticut Department of Health has granted the Ridgefield Health Department $100,000 for the 2015-16 fiscal year and $225,000 for the 2016-17 year for education efforts based on its BLAST Lyme program.

“It’s wonderful news,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “It represents yet another demonstration of how Ridgefield people are willing to dedicate their personal time on issues that affect many people, and we’re very proud to have Jennifer Reid and Karen Gaudian as residents of Ridgefield.”

Gaudian, who works in the town social service department, and Reid formed Ridgefield’s Lyme Disease Task Force with Marconi’s support in 2003, four years after Reid and her daughters contracted Lyme disease.

They launched the BLAST Lyme Disease Prevention Program in 2008, with a $50,000 start-up grant from the state, and it has been operating as a volunteer basis since then. The task force was retooled as the Lyme Connection in 2013.

Five simple steps

BLAST is an acronym that spotlights “five key evidence-based steps that may reduce the risk of tick-borne illnesses” — for people who follow them. It stands for:

• B — Bathe after outdoor activity;

• L — Look for ticks and rashes;

• A — Apply repellent;

• S — Spray the yard;

• T —  Treat pets.

In addition to Lyme disease, the BLAST approach is considered a useful means to reduce the incidence of anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and powassan, since those diseases are also spread by ticks.

The grant from the Department of Public Heath (DPH) provides $100,000 the first year for a full time statewide education coordinator based in Ridgefield.

The second year $225,000 is provided by the grant, which would continue the coordinator’s position and add three additional part time health education coordinators for $105,000, as well as provide $20,000 for materials, to  create regional community Lyme disease prevention programs for locations determined by the state health department.

Marconi noted that multi-year grant programs are vulnerable to changing priorities and finances.

“The second year is always in jeopardy,” he said.

Legislative effort

Jennifer Reid said the grant appeared to be an outgrowth of long efforts by volunteers involved in the program, activity in the state legislature last session, as well as increasing concern about Lyme and other diseases that ticks carry.

“Our goal was to maintain the BLAST program with the help or our volunteer educators, believing that the state would eventually support and sustain BLAST as a statewide tick-borne-disease prevention effort,” she said.

“Clearly the time has come as numbers of new cases and new infections has tick-borne diseases on everyone’s radar.”

For 2014 the State Department of Health (DPH)  counts 1,705 confirmed cases of Lyme disease statewide, and 641 probable cases.

In its town by town statistics, the state lists 20 confirmed Lyme cases in Ridgefield in 2014, and five probable cases.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s most recent figures are for 2013. It shows Connecticut with 2,111 confirmed cases of Lyme disease and another 811 probable cases.

As a local Lyme activist, Reid notes that the CDC acknowledges that the number of cases counted is far below the number of people who have the disease.

She point to a CDC document that says:

“Each year, approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to CDC by state health departments and the District of Columbia. However, this number does not reflect every case of Lyme disease that occurs in the United States every year.

“Surveillance systems provide vital information but they do not capture every illness. Because only a fraction of illnesses are reported … CDC uses the best data available and makes reasonable adjustments — based on related data, previous study results, and common assumptions — to account for shortcomings and missing pieces of information…

“Preliminary results from three different evaluation methods suggest that the number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the United States is around 300,000.”

Reid says if a similar increase — multiply by 10, from 30,000 to 300,000 — were applied to Connecticut figures, the state count of about 2,300 cases —  1,705 confirmed and 641 probable — would rise to about 23,000 cases.

Reid said the grant approval was an outgrowth of a bill in the legislature that sought to increase Lyme disease education in the state.

“The plan that was proposed was that we begin spreading the BLAST program which has been in Ridgefield since 2008,” she said.

Reid expects the state money will be used to bring the Ridgefield-based BLAST Lyme awareness and prevention program to four of the state’s five health districts over the grant’s two-year life.

“The BLAST program coordinated out of Ridgefield would be spread through Region 5 in 2016, and that region’s expansion will be considered a pilot, and from the success of that pilot will, in 2017, go on to three more regions.

“There’s more funding in the second year and the intention is to almost cover the state by the end of 2017.

“There will just be one more region left.”

Exactly what’s done will be guided by the state.

“There’s lot of suggested ideas,” she said, “Now that the Department of Public Health has the funding they’ll sit down and put the exact program forward that they want.”

Reid said that she, Gaudian, Marconi and town Health Director Ed Briggs appreciated the support of State Senator Dante Bartolomeo of Meriden, the chair of legislature’s committee on children, and Dr. Randall Nelson of the Connecticut Department of Health, in getting backing for the program.

“We were very honored that they both agreed the BLAST program would be the best to be a model for this statewide program,” she said.

“The BLAST message is one they very much like because it highlights five of the most strategic things that people can do, should do, for all tick-borne diseases, not just Lyme disease,” Reid said.

“The message from BLAST came directly from Yale Emerging Infections — Dr. Neeta Connally who lives in Ridgefield, now works at WestConn,” Reid said.

“She’s been involved since day one, she’s been working on the study.”

Reid said support for the program had come from many sources including the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, the Danbury Hospital Registry, the Western Connecticut Health Network, Boehringer Ingelheim, the Henry J. Leir Foundation, and the Rotary Club of Ridgefield.

While the BLAST program got off the ground with the $50,000 from the state back in 2008, it has been a volunteer effort for years.

“That was just a start-up grant in 2008,” she said.

“We’ve kept it going since then with all volunteer efforts.

Around the state are about 30 volunteers who go to health fairs, put on presentations and spread the BLAST message.

They’re involved for differing reasons.

“It’s a mix,” Reid said. “I’d say a third are volunteers who’ve been impacted in some way by tick-borne diseases, a  third are from health departments and a third are in health related jobs.

“This has been a lot of hard work and volunteer commitment,” she said.

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