Bill could help improve the detection of Lyme disease

Posted: March 1, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — Lyme disease continues to afflict much of Virginia, including residents of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, but detecting the ailment remains difficult.

A bill that passed the state General Assembly last week would attempt to improve the situation by requiring physicians to tell patients that Lyme disease tests could be inaccurate.

The legislation was opposed by the Medical Society of Virginia, whose members argue it unnecessarily interferes in their practice of medicine.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Barbara Comstock, R-Fairfax, still must be signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell and would go into effect July 1.

Lyme disease — which is transmitted to humans through tick bites — can be detected by a small rash that looks like a bull’s-eye and is treatable with antibiotics, said Charles Devine, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District.

But if the rash goes unnoticed, it can be difficult to detect, he said.

“Lab testing isn’t that reliable and it’s possible to have a false negative or a false positive,” Devine said.

In 2011, there were nine reported cases of Lyme disease in Winchester, 44 in Frederick County, and 17 in Clarke County.

Since many cases go undetected, the numbers could be low.

“I think there’s much more Lyme disease than the numbers say,” Devine said.

A tick must be attached to a human body for at least 36 hours to transmit the disease, he added.

Without treatment, the disease can lead to arthritis and neurological and cardiac problems.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, was a big supporter of the bill and said she has seen its effects firsthand.

“Almost every family who lives near me has had at least one family member test positive,” Vogel wrote in an email Thursday.

She added that one of her sons, her dog and she herself have had the disease.

She thinks the bill will help people who could have the disease.

“It might make some people more aware that they should continue to be tested,” she said.

Dr. Russell Libby, president of the Medial Society of Virginia, said Thursday that state lawmakers are stepping over the line.

“The legislature should not be judging medical evidence,” he said.

Virginia doctors use the best, most up-to-date clinical guidelines, he said, and he doesn’t think politicians should interfere.

Libby said that many medical tests are fallible and that requiring physicians to spell that out to patients could complicate treatment.

— Contact Conor Gallagher at cgallagher@winchesterstar.com