MODL faces challenges, limited support in tackling Lyme disease


While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken centre stage in health awareness, the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg (MODL) has been forging ahead in its attempts to mitigate another major concern in the area - Lyme disease.

It's an effort that municipal staff admit has had its challenges.

"We're making some progress. But it's definitely slow, and it's not easy," MODL's communications officer, Sarah Kucharski, told civic officials at a recent council meeting.

Kucharski had been updating the council members on the efforts of the municipality concerning Lyme disease, which is caused by ticks.

The municipality's Lyme disease strategy included a $55,000, three-year public awareness campaign.

An initial benchmark testing in 2018 was undertaken to understand how many people knew about ticks, Lyme disease and their behaviour around preventative measures.

"And then we had the 2020 research to see, did we move the needle? ... Did we actually have an impact on the behaviour of people in the area?" said Kucharski.

She told the councillors that, as with the municipality's fire services recruitment campaign, "awareness campaigns take a very long time, and a substantial amount of money to make a difference in the public. There's just a lot of competing information out there. Behaviour change is difficult."

Her presentation followed one made earlier in the February 23 council meeting by Sharon Archibald, a market research specialist who reported on the campaign's results.

Four hundred surveys were collected from Lunenburg County residents 18 years of age and older to determine whether the campaign increased public awareness and knowledge of ticks and Lyme disease.

"Overall the campaign was successful," Archibald told the councillors, reporting that the awareness of ticks and Lyme disease was up nine per cent.

Other gains included a 16 per cent increase in the number of people reporting they "sometimes, not always" conducted tick checks.

"And this one's important: there was a decrease of seven per cent for those who indicated they never use protective measures," said Archibald.

People who were aware of Lyme disease and the importance of being vigilant showed a more significant development - an increase of 10 per cent.

Those who regarded the disease as "very serious" was up eight per cent. And in terms of preventative measure, tucking pants into socks was up six per cent.

Less successful was the awareness of ticks being everywhere and that every season is tick season, which was up just two per cent, and there was no change on the messaging that daily tick checks are a simple and effective preventative measure.

Archibald suggested that the COVID-19 messaging may have "drowned out" any information about Lyme disease or that residents were experiencing "information overload."

"While they think Lyme disease is very serious, I think they were really focused on COVID-19. So there was competing noise and decreased message recall overall."

As for who the messages were impacting, Archibald said younger adults tended to have lower awareness than their older counterparts, who were also more likely to "engage in preventative measures." While women were more likely than men to be engaged on the topic of Lyme disease and to seek information on it.

Kucharski also reported on the status of the municipality's deer bait station project, which it's working on in conjunction with Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and will be winding up in September of this year.

Deer are one of the most prolific carriers of the ticks that cause Lyme disease.

The project has involved placing bait stations in specific areas. Corn is allocated to each station to attract deer; in the process of eating the corn the deer brush up against the tick repellent, Permethrin.

A tick count was recorded in the area before the stations went up, and one will be conducted when the project ends in the fall. The project's goal is to determine whether the bait stations reduced the number of ticks in the area.

Kucharski advised the councillors, many of whom are new to the council as of last October's municipal elections, that the municipality also sponsored a large Lyme disease conference in Bridgewater in 2019. Over three spring and fall sessions pre-COVID, municipal staff went out to farmers' markets, public health fairs and home shows dispensing information on Lyme disease. During the pandemic, they continued the awareness efforts with newspaper and radio advertising and online social media campaigns, as well as produced posters and brochures on Lyme disease that were handed out at schools.

The municipality's Lyme disease strategy has also been to advocate to provincial and federal officials on the importance of the development of vaccines to prevent the spread of disease.

Kucharski reported that the mayor, Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, met with the local MLA to look at potential partnerships with the province and sent a letter to Health Canada advocating for a vaccine. According to Kucharski, MODL received a response from Health Canada indicating "they're doing their best to move forward on a vaccine."

Chasidy Veinotte, the councillor for District 10, asked whether the municipality has approached Nova Scotia's Department of Lands and Forestry (formerly the Department of Natural Resources) with the thought of controlling the deer population, specifically in the Garden Lots and Blue Rocks area, "where "it seems that deer have taken over. There might be more deer than residents."

Alex Dumaresq, MODL's deputy chief administrative officer, replied that the municipality held a number of conversations with the department about its Lyme disease project.

MODL asked whether the department would be willing to provide the labour to refill the Permethrin and the corn in the bait stations. "But we weren't successful," said Dumaresq. The Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation is now undertaking that work.

"We approached the province multiple times on assistance on the public health and had a small measure of success, though not nearly as much as we had hoped for," Dumaresq continued to report to the councillors.

"And we did speak to them about deer population management, but didn't receive much in the way of a positive response..."

Dumaresq suggested that if the hypotheses proves true that a greater amount of bait stations results in a reduction in the number of ticks in an area, "that would make a stronger argument for going back to the province and saying we need to reduce the habitat that supports ticks, and that would involve a more aggressive approach to wildlife management.

"Or at least it could," added Dumaresq. "But, at present, they haven't taken us up on any of those overtures for partnership on this project," he said.

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