If you have a family member or friend who has suffered from Lyme disease, you already know the pain it can cause. Conservatively, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 300,000 people contracted Lyme disease in 2013. While some people are diagnosed and treated early, effectively stopping the disease in its tracks, many others are not so lucky.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria transmitted when an infected tick bites a human or animal (as veterinarians know, Lyme disease is a big problem for pets as well). While anyone can contract the disease once bitten, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable.

For starters, the disease is hard to diagnose. Some patients will experience what’s commonly referred to as a “bulls-eye” rash, which makes diagnosis easier, but most patients do not, allowing the disease to take hold and spread throughout the body. Worse, many of these symptoms overlap with other common diseases, creating misdiagnoses such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

For those who aren’t diagnosed quickly, the disease can be debilitating, highlighted by severe joint pain, memory loss, Bell’s palsy (facial drooping), fatigue, and depression. In some cases, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease can affect the human heart, which can be fatal.

Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are on the rise in our country. Between 1993 and 2013, the number of estimated new cases of Lyme disease rose by 340 percent, according to the CDC. With thousands of people becoming infected by the disease annually, it’s fair to say Lyme disease has become an epidemic and a significant public health risk.

In my home state of Wisconsin, the number of confirmed cases has continued to rise year after year. In 2013, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services estimated 4,000 new cases. While Lyme disease is generally associated with the Northeast part of our country, its spread across the country fits the definition of a prevalent and significant health threat. Notably, Alabama’s Department of Public Health recently declared Lyme disease endemic to seven counties.

As Lyme disease grows, so do the costs. According to a 2015 report out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the healthcare costs of each case averages over $3,000, adding up to a staggering price tag of over $1.3 billion nationwide. This measurement only includes direct medical costs. If calculating the costs of lost wages, lost tax revenues, and the emotional/physical toll taken on patients and their families, Lyme disease represents one of the great healthcare crises in America.

Lyme is just one of over a dozen disease-causing pathogens that can be passed to humans from ticks. Many of these other diseases, though less prevalent than Lyme, can have even more debilitating consequences, including death.

The evidence is overwhelming; something needs to be done about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, and the time has come for the federal government to step-up its response.

As a first step, the Senate needs to pass what’s called The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act of 2015 (S. 1503). The bill, which is similar to a House bill that passed last year, has bipartisan support and is being championed by Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (R-N.H.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education and Research Act of 2015 would establish an advisory committee within the federal government that would help the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) coordinate the government’s response to Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, specifically:

·      Help improve interagency communication and coordination

·      Identify opportunities for collaboration between federal agencies and private organizations, ensuring that a broad spectrum of scientific viewpoints are represented in public health policy decisions

·      Focus on developing better diagnostic tests

·      Increase public awareness related to Lyme and other tick-borne diseases

For those who are rightly budget conscious, it’s important to note that this legislation does not authorize any additional federal funds, but utilizes existing HHS funding.

Congress has its share of partisan battles, but this bill isn’t one of them. I strongly encourage senators of both parties to come together to support and pass this important piece of legislation.

Thompson was governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001. He served as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush. He currently serves as an independent board member of US BIOLOGIC, which is developing a novel wildlife Lyme vaccine.