With cases of Lyme disease on the rise in Maine, a new nonprofit organization has a mission to educate the public and raise awareness about the tick-borne health hazard.

MaineLyme was officially announced by its board of directors Sept. 1. Its mission is to decrease the prevalence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses through awareness, prevention, education and advocacy.

In 2008, 908 cases of Lyme disease were reported, a 72 percent increase over 2007, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of cases rose again in 2009, with 929 reported, most of them in Cumberland and York counties. A fact sheet compiled by the Maine Lyme Working Group said these numbers may be underestimated by a factor of 10.

“We’ve been working hard in the past six months with that … in mind,” said board secretary Barb Maurais.

In addition to Maurais, the board of directors consists of president Vicky Delfino, vice president Leslie Abrons, treasurer Susan Holmes, Constance Dickey and Carol Sylvester. Each person represents different facets, including legislative progress and patient advocacy, and some are affected by Lyme disease.

As someone who struggled with the disease for a number of years before being diagnosed, Delfino hopes raising awareness will help those affected, as well as prevent further cases.

“I just want to make a difference for the next person coming down the road,” she said.

With the organization still in its infancy, Maurais said various educational events are in the works, but nothing is scheduled yet. She said the organization intends to have a presence at wellness or health fairs, offer educational courses and attend various functions and events to increase awareness of the disease.

“Whether we’re doing a mini-seminar for school nurses or talking at a health fair, however it is that we get the word out there is what we’re going to do,” Delfino said.

The board of directors are all volunteering their time to the cause, she said. Delfino said they all became involved for different reasons, but all have a passion and desire to make change.

One tool is the fact sheet produced by the Maine Lyme Working Group. Symptoms listed include headache, body aches, fever, weakness or fatigue – whether or not a rash from a tick bite occurred.

“The symptoms (of Lyme disease) can be varied,” Delfino said. “People should be aware and educate themselves, whether it’s through our fact sheet or other reading material about varied symptoms, and to seek out the proper treatment if they think Lyme (disease) is a possibility.”

While MaineLyme hopes to raise awareness about the disease itself, Delfino and Maurais want to encourage prevention. When temperatures are above freezing, ticks are active, with Lyme disease incidence peaking in the summer months.

Steps to prevent a tick bite include tucking your shirt into your pants and your pant legs into your socks, wearing light-colored clothing that will show dark ticks, using tick repellents and checking daily for ticks if you have spent time outside.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]