Lyme Disease in Harford County

December 06, 1993

Lyme disease has been a controversial, almost faddish ailment since the tick-transmitted infection achieved widespread notoriety in the East in the 1980s. The symptoms such as arthritis, irritation and malaise are also associated with numerous other causes, physical and psychosomatic.

Yet the bacterium carried by the black-legged tick is real, and human treatment with antibiotics seems clinically effective. A vaccine was developed for dogs, who can't avoid ticks, and scientists are working toward a preventive inoculation for horses. There is none, so far, in sight for humans.

The 100-acre Hiter farm near Aberdeen has become a sort of laboratory for studying Lyme disease: humans, horses and dogs on the property have come down with the ailment, several animals have died. The state Agriculture Department is now studying the disease on test horses there.

The question is whether the site represents a verified public health hazard to Harford County and what should be done about it.

The farm owners told the developer of the planned Greenleaf subdivision nearby that new residents should be informed of the potential health risk. The County Council required the developer to conduct a study of the Hiter property and to advise prospective buyers of the possible danger; those conditions were quickly withdrawn when Greenleaf filed a court appeal.

No developer is going to advertise that occupants of his apartments and townhouses may contract Lyme disease. In fact, that risk in varying degrees may await anyone who lives near a woods. But the builder shares a concern with other residents in finding out whether the adjacent woods is an exceptional "hotbed" of this debilitating ailment.

We think that the county and state should cooperate in a public health survey of the region, which includes part of Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Maryland House rest stop on Interstate 95. If the infected tick population in the area is exceptionally large, brush and trees (where ticks thrive) could be cut back from dwellings; genuine public health considerations should override rigid tree preservation laws.

Serious attention to the cause and remediation of a possible public health problem, rather than diverting responsibility to the developer, should be the county's priority. And given its stake in the findings, the Security Management Corp. developing the 315-acre subdivision would probably be a willing participant.

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