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Tick-Borne Diseases Continue to Rise

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Prevention tips for Lyme Disease Awareness Month

While hiking in Benzie County this spring, do not be alarmed if you encounter someone dressed in all white from head to toe. More than likely the attire is not a biohazard suit, but rather the new fashion of “in the know” hikers.

What do they know? How to prevent ticks.

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month in Michigan, and awareness is definitely key to prevention. Spring is an active time for ticks, because the weather is damp and the nymphs are emerging from winter. They are ready to begin active feeding, which can last up to five days once a tick attaches itself to a host.

Last year, The Betsie Current reported on the rise in tick-borne diseases – specifically Lyme disease – and sadly the rise continues this year.

Benzie County remains on the 2015 updated Michigan Lyme Disease Risk Map as one of the many Michigan counties with laboratory-confirmed populations of the infected blacklegged (deer) tick (Ixodes scapularis), the most common carrier of Lyme disease.

“There is an increase in the tick population that causes Lyme disease along the western shoreline,” says Tom Fountain of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department. “It’s more common now than in the past, and people are asked to be more observant.”

Best Prevent Measures

Follow these prevention measures to avoid contracting Lyme disease:
When in tick territory, wear the ‘tick uniform’ to make it easier to see ticks on clothing and minimize exposed skin, making it difficult for ticks to find and attach to bare flesh.
Avoid wooded and brushy areas, as well as high grassy meadows, where hitchhiking ticks wait for opportunity.

Use insect repellents that contain 30% DEET or 0.5% permethrin.

Attire: The Tick Uniform

Hat, preferably with a flap to cover the neck: ticks will attach to the scalp, as well.

Long-sleeved white shirt with white- or light-colored long pants tucked into light-colored high socks: these make it difficult for ticks to find their way to bare skin.
Shoes: no bare feet or sandals.

Hikers and dog walkers would be wise to adopt the new hazmat-like hiking fashion when outdoors in Benzie County and other surrounding counties. The light colors make it easier to identify the poppy seed-sized bloodsucker that hitches a ride when one brushes a leg up against a bush while hiking.

After returning home, hikers should perform a tick check that focuses on the scalp and ears, back, belly button, waist, pelvic and groin area, and behind the knees. Ticks will migrate to these warm regions of the body.

It is important to save any ticks you find that have attached themselves to bare skin for identification purposes, which the Health Department can do for you. While Fountain says that the Health Department has had no reported human cases of Lyme disease, he welcomes people to bring in ticks that they remove from themselves if they suspect it to be a deer tick. The ticks will then be sent to Lansing for identification at no charge. (Note: The Health Department only had a couple of submissions last year and has not had any yet this year.)

Dr. Susan Daly of the Betsie Valley Animal Clinic in Benzonia tests many domestic dogs for Lyme disease this time of year when they come in for their annual heartworm check. So far, over a dozen have tested positive for Lyme but not all are overtly ill.

Lyme disease is an epidemic bacterial infection that lacks effective treatment. Prompt diagnosis is critical but not always possible. Antibiotics are the choice treatment and are most effective in early diagnosis. If the disease becomes chronic or is left untreated in its early stages, it often requires more intensive and long-term treatment – sometimes as long as 2-3 years.

Short-term symptoms can occur within three to 30 days after exposure and include chills, fever, and aching muscles and joints, much like the flu. Long-term symptoms, meanwhile, may mimic a host of degenerative neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Multi-system involvement migrates to different parts of the body causing body aches, joint pain, headaches, fatigue, confusion, and heart problems.

Physicians are divided over how to diagnose and treat Lyme disease. Some even deny the existence of chronic Lyme disease.

However, the latest data from the Center for Disease Control indicates that this is a serious epidemic disease, much bigger than previously reported and very likely an underreported one. The annual incidence of Lyme in the United States has been reported to be 30,000 cases, but has suddenly jumped 300,000.

“According to the informal survey we have, I have three people listed that were infected in Benzie County over the last few years,” says Linda Purdy of the Michigan Lyme Disease Association. “The Health Department may not know, because their cases may not have been counted.” 

Part of the problem is the reporting system, according to Purdy, because not all cases meet the criteria to be counted. She gives an example: The rash has to be a certain size, and certain tests have to come up positive. In some cases, physicians do not wait for the rash to appear nor do they wait for symptoms; they simply treat the disease when a person is bitten by a blacklegged tick because the earlier that treatment is started, the better the prognosis. In other words, it is better for the patient to start treatment rather than waiting for test results to come in, but then these cases can never be counted officially.

“Testing is the other issue for this disease,” Purdy says. “There is really no good test out there to say definitively if one has it or does not have it.”

 Because of this, there are only a handful of physicians in the entire state who are considered Lyme specialty physicians.

Making the disease even harder to treat is the fact that Lyme patients are not easy to treat, and no two patients are exactly the same nor do they necessarily respond the same to treatment.

Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.

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