Credit: George Danby

Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases are skyrocketing across the country and here in Maine, and they are spreading farther north in our state. On Sept. 5, I convened an official Senate hearing at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory Tick Lab in Orono to spotlight both the devastating consequences of tick-borne diseases and the outstanding work being done by the UMaine Tick Lab to better understand the diseases ticks carry and to protect Mainers.

The incidence of tick-borne diseases has exploded over the past 15 years. In 2003, Lyme disease infected around 21,000 Americans. Today the problem is so great that no one knows just how many people are afflicted. Only a small fraction of cases is ever officially reported. Experts predict that last year there were nearly half a million cases.

Here in Maine last year, there were approximately 1,400 new cases of Lyme disease, nearly double the number in 2010. The incidence of Lyme disease in Maine is the highest in the country — 107 cases per 100,000 Mainers, which is 10 times higher than the national average.

Other tick-borne diseases are also on the rise in our state. Babesiosis, a malaria-like disease, has tripled in the past five years, and Anaplasmosis, related to rickets, has increased more than five-fold. The diseases ticks carry affect Americans of all ages, but tick-borne diseases disproportionately affect people older than 65.

From children to seniors, far too many Americans with Lyme disease experience a complex diagnostic odyssey that takes months or even years. In addition to the physical and emotional toll that Lyme disease can impose, it is also expensive. Medical costs of Lyme disease are estimated at $1.3 billion per year. When accounting for indirect costs, including loss of work, the annual costs balloon to $75 billion per year.

A correct and early diagnosis can reduce costs and improve the prognosis. But we have a long way to go. When HIV became a public health crisis, a gold standard for identification and treatment was developed within 10 years. Lyme disease was identified more than 40 years ago, yet there is still no gold standard for treatment. Existing prevention, education and diagnostic efforts are helpful but remain fragmented. It is time to unite against ticks.

I authored the bipartisan TICK Act and introduced it earlier this year with Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota and my Maine colleague, Sen. Angus King, because it is past time to implement a public health approach to address this crisis.

And that’s what the TICK Act does. TICK stands for Ticks: Identify, Control and Knockout. Through a unified approach, this legislation would arm local communities and states with the resources they need for prevention, early detection and treatment of tick-borne diseases.

The TICK Act would apply a three-pronged approach to tackle tick-borne diseases. First, it would establish an office to develop a national strategy to prevent these diseases. Second, it would reauthorize Centers for Disease Control Regional Centers of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases that have led the scientific response to fighting ticks. Finally, the bill would establish grants to support state efforts to improve data collection and analysis, early detection and diagnosis, treatment, and public awareness.

Our hearing featured testimony from national, state and local experts, as well as from Mainers Paula Jackson Jones and Christopher Philbrook, who shared their personal experiences with Lyme disease. It was dedicated to all who have suffered from tick-borne diseases and began by recognizing a woman who left us too early — Lyn Snow, a well-known Maine artist who died in 2013 from Powassan, the deadliest tick-borne disease. It was an honor to have Snow’s daughter, Susie Whittington, attend the hearing.

With a national effort the TICK Act would establish, we can slow the spread of these devastating diseases and protect the health of people here in Maine and across the country.

Susan M. Collins represents Maine is the U.S. Senate.