A bipartisan group of lawmakers took the first steps Thursday toward pushing a package of bills designed to combat Lyme disease through the Legislature, urging a committee to approve measures that would require the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to sell insect repellent in state parks and forests and set up signs on state lands warning of the disease.
Rep. Jeff Mursau, of Crivitz, and Sen. Rob Cowles, of Green Bay, both Republicans, and Democratic Rep. Nick Milroy, of South Range, told the Assembly Committee on Environment during a hearing that the tick-borne disease is spreading across Wisconsin and the state needs to protect residents and visitors.
“This problem is only getting worse in Wisconsin,” Milroy said. “I think we all know somebody who has been infected and affected by Lyme disease.”
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted to humans by ticks. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash. If the disease goes untreated it can spread to joints, the heart and nervous system, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The average number of Lyme disease cases in Wisconsin has more than doubled over the last decade, according to health officials. According to the latest CDC data, Wisconsin had the fourth-highest number of confirmed Lyme disease cases among all 50 states in 2017 at 1,794 incidents. The state saw 3,105 estimated cases last year, according to the state Department of Health Services. The agency believes the actual number of cases was probably much higher than what was reported.
Mursau, Cowles and Milroy introduced five bills this summer to address the problem.
The first would require the DNR to sell insect repellent in every state park and forest. According to a department fiscal estimate attached to the bill, only five out of 64 state parks and forests offer anything for sale to the public. Building a system to sell repellent at the remaining 59 properties would cost about $15,000.
Agency officials estimate they would have to spend $20,000 annually on repellent, but they expect sales revenue will cover those costs.
The second bill would require the department to post at least one sign warning people of the dangers of Lyme disease in every state park, trail, recreational area and forest and give the DNR $12,500 to carry out the mandate.
The other bills would create a committee to study tick-borne diseases; require the DNR to include information about Lyme disease in state park brochures and mandate the agency launch a Lyme disease public awareness campaign every May in conjunction with Lyme Disease Awareness month; and hand the Department of Health Services $91,400 to hire an epidemiologist who would focus on diseases spread by mosquitoes, ticks and other insects.
Griffin Austin, 13, of Verona, attended Thursday’s hearing on the repellent and sign bills in a wheelchair. He told the Assembly Committee on Environment that he suddenly found himself unable to keep up with his friends in 2017. One day after basketball practice, he discovered he could no longer walk. The fatigue grew so debilitating that he had to use an electric scooter and couldn’t shower or brush his teeth. He finally was diagnosed with Lyme disease in April, he said.
“I missed out on two years of my life,” he said. “I’m truly grateful this legislation will bring much-needed awareness. Much more needs to be done.”
Rep. Scott Krug, R-Wisconsin Rapids, responded to Austin’s story by telling the committee that his daughter was diagnosed with Lyme disease two years ago as well.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, said the panel will likely vote on the bills next month.