Stamford — Improved diagnostics, more research and controlling animal populations are keys to stemming the rapid growth of Lyme disease in New England, experts said Thursday at a forum at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus.

Hosted by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the forum was held in anticipation of congressional review of his proposal to create an advisory committee on tick-borne diseases and to encourage better diagnostic tests and research into the disease.

About 40,000 new cases of Lyme disease were reported nationwide in 2009 — more than four times the number reported in 1991, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Experts say the number of diagnosed cases is rising due to the spread of the disease and increased awareness.

Connecticut’s chief entomologist, Kirby Stafford, told the approximately 150 people attending the forum that Connecticut had 55 cases per 100,000 residents in 2010 — one of the highest rates in the nation. But the number of actual new instances of Lyme disease is likely 10 times more than what is reported, Stafford said.

“We share a common concern with a disease that has really reached epidemic proportions,” Blumenthal said during the froum.

Symptoms can range from extreme fatigue to what appear to be learning disabilities or psychiatric issues, doctors say.

Three Lyme patients testified during the forum about their difficulties in getting diagnosed.

Dwight Harris of Burlington said he went 14 years before doctors determined he had Lyme disease.

Mark Hopwood of Trumbull said he saw 10 doctors in 18 months and was misdiagnosed multiple times, including by one doctor who suspected a brain tumor. In the past year alone, Hopwood said, he spent $30,000 out-of-pocket on treatment. Insurance plans, Lyme patients at the forum said, often do not cover Lyme disease treatment.

“I am so completely dumbfounded that the medical community is so misinformed and so misled about the symptoms, the treatments and testing,” Hopwood said.

Stafford, the state entomologist, brought up the issue of controlling deer and rodent populations. Communities that have been able to seriously reduce the number of deer, such as the Mumford Cove area of Groton,  have seen far fewer ticks and fewer cases of Lyme disease, according to studies by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

But Mumford Cove is a far more isolated area than most Connecticut municipalities, and the killing of deer, along with the general concept of hunting near residential areas, is controversial.

Stafford’s own research focuses on preventive measures such as pesticide spraying, although that solution has its own serious environmental concerns. Stafford has also experimented with a “four poster” method, in which chemicals are placed in bins that deer feed from. When consumed by deer, the chemicals kill the ticks but do not harm the animal. The method has led to promising results, Stafford said, but widespread use of such techniques is expensive.

Dave Streit, chairman of the Fairfield County Deer Management Alliance, believes that managing the deer population through hunting is the most effective solution to Lyme disease, and he would like to see the hunting season for deer extended.

The season now generally runs for three to four months starting in the fall, depending on the type of weapon and whether the land is public or private.

“It’s the deer regulations [limiting hunting] that have caused the deer herd to explode,” Streit said. “Seven and a half months out of the year, if you touch a deer, you end up going to jail.”

The state’s deer population is highest in Fairfield County and in areas like the town of Redding, where Streit lives. According to an aerial survey by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) in 2011, there were an average of 75 deer per square mile in Fairfield County, up from 62 in 2009.

Redding is working with DEEP on a special research project to create a town-wide management plan, which began last March and is still being completed. The town also created a program that connects private landowners with hunters who can help reduce the deer population on their land. Streit said 160 families have signed up so far, and the nearby towns of Newtown, Bethel and Wilton are also starting similar programs.

“These deer are like B-52 bombers doing carpet-bombing through your yard as they drop tick eggs … and then later that day or that afternoon, your kids go out and play in that exact same area,” Streit said in an interview earlier this week. “There’s no wonder that so many kids are ending up with Lyme disease.”

“Clearly there’s evidence that the more deer, the more the disease,” Blumenthal said after the hearing.

“We’re not talking about slaughtering deer, but controlling the numbers that breed. And that is part of what Connecticut can help to lead the country to do.”

This story is the result of a partnership between the Mirror and WNPR/Connecticut Public Radio. A radio version will be available Friday.

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