Look Out for Lyme Disease

Brenda Malinics, for the Shuttle

One of the most fascinating books I have ever read is “The Little Killers” by Wyatt Blassingame. This quote appears at the beginning of the book:

“Fleas have destroyed cities more completely than atom bombs. Mosquitos have conquered not only nations, but civilizations. The louse has killed more soldiers than all the bullets of the world.” This book was written before Lyme disease appeared on the scene.

Pennsylvania has the highest number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States. The infection has become one of the most common diseases in the country, with over 300,000 people affected every year. (Although everyone has heard about Lyme disease, few know that ticks can also carry babesiosis, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and the newest and most dreaded disease, powassan.)

I have had Lyme disease five times. Four of the times I got the classic bull’s-eye rash, but had I not gotten it, I would never have known that I was infected with the Borrelia bacteria. Twice I was “lucky” to find the tick chewing itself into my body. Although one can feel the smallest insect bite, tick saliva has a protein that inhibits pain, so we don’t feel them biting and burrowing into our skin.

Symptoms of Lyme disease include rash, headache, nausea, weakness, neck stiffness and fever. Unfortunately, these symptoms are similar to common ailments, and too often doctors dismiss patients’ complaints, or misdiagnose them without considering Lyme disease as a cause.

Although Lyme can be treated with antibotics, you must catch it early to avoid its crippling effects. Just ask John Valerio, an anchor at KYW Newsradio. His son Chris was strong, healthy and working in landscaping when his finger began to twitch. He began having neurological symptoms, saw specialist after specialist and underwent numerous tests. Three years later, Chris can’t feed himself or talk much and standing is a challenge. He was continually misdiagnosed and not tested for Lyme disease until it was too late to recover. His family is now on a mission to educate others about the disease.

Ironically, your dog can get vaccinated for Lyme disease, but you cannot. Back in the 1990s, a new vaccine to prevent the disease was put on the market by SmithKline Beecham and was approved by the FDA in 1998. It required three doses over the course of a year.

I got the LYMErix vaccine before it was pulled off the market. Unfortunately, LYMErix debuted near the beginning of anti-vaccine mania. Patients began filing lawsuits soon after negative media reports began to surface, and eventually the vaccine was pulled from the market, despite evidence finding it was safe.

The increase in cases of Lyme disease are thought to be caused by global warming as ticks move about the country and remain active longer. Three of the five times I got Lyme disease, I was infected in the fall. Last October, I was bitten by a tick, got the bull’s-eye rash and started the treatment, only to find another tick two weeks later embedded in my arm. I spend a lot of time outdoors and work with animals. I believe that it is next to impossible to prevent tick bites.

Ticks can blow in the wind and be found everywhere — in the city and in the country — not just in high grasses. Yes, it is wise to cover up when walking through the woods, but it is next to impossible to see a deer tick in its tiniest stage. Dog ticks are easy to find, but deer ticks have three stages and in the nymph stage, ticks are as small as a grain of pepper. It is important to shower within 24 hours after being outdoors, but you must scrub yourself with a washcloth. Experts say that it takes 24 hours for the tick to pass the spirochetes into our bloodstream, so we have a small window of time to get unseen ticks off our bodies.

The most important thing to remember is that if you feel lousy, do not let anyone dismiss how you feel, even if test results come back negative. Lyme disease is sinister and ticks are everywhere. Be cautious, but be your own advocate and listen to your body.