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Lyme Disease: Be Aware and Be Prepared

Due to the city’s warm winter and early spring, medical experts are predicting an upsurge of tick borne illnesses in nearby areas.

If you’re planning a summer vacation to the Hamptons, Connecticut, New England or any locale with wooded areas, pack extra insect repellent in your medical kit and be sure to read up on Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness in the US. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that Lyme disease is an epidemic already larger than AIDS, West Nile, and Avian Flu combined. Because of the unusually warm winter and early spring weather in New York City, medical experts are predicting a major upsurge in this noxious infection that is particularly widespread in the Northeastern States due mainly to its many wooded areas. 

What exactly is Lyme disease? It is an illness carried by ticks that feed on animals such as deer, squirrels, mice and other rodents that are infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. These ticks often live in grassy or wooded areas, and even yards where there are shrubs, bushes, hanging vines and woodpiles.  

Lyme was first identified in 1975 after a cluster of residents in Lyme, Connecticut, a village of 2,000 people on the Connecticut River, experienced unusual arthritic symptoms. Lyme has since been reported from the Northeastern coasts of Long Island, upstate New York, the New England coastline from New Hampshire to Maine, west to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and even northern California. (The map below with areas in red show the greatest tick activity.) My son, Sean, and his family live on four acres near a wooded area in Westchester and, since Guinea hens often eat ticks, Sean and his wife Loretta raise hens and let them loose in their yard to graze. Sean and Loretta also check their two large dogs for ticks, since dogs can carry infected ticks into a home. 

 File 4045Most people get Lyme when an infected tick (A nymph-stage tick is the size of a poppy seed) attaches to their skin, sometimes climbing up under clothing. If you find a tick, remove it immediately. If you have been bitten, a visible “bull’s eye” rash may appear on your skin. Even if no visible rash appears, see your doctor as soon as possible. But do not panic. It takes up to 36 hours for the tick to infect you. Other early symptoms may include fever, chills, headache, and fatigue. Check the website of the Lyme Research Alliance for more details.

When caught early, Lyme can usually be cured with antibiotics. However, if the infection is not diagnosed and treated early—or if treatment doesn’t work—the infection can hide in your body, causing serious and long-lasting complications that affect every major organ system. In severe cases, it can be fatal. 

“My life hasn’t been the same since I was diagnosed with Lyme,” says Yonkers resident, Cheryl Renn. “I’ve had bouts of extreme fatigue and brain fog that have been absolutely debilitating.”

The Catch-22 is that many MDs do not know how to diagnose the disease and they attribute Lyme symptoms to different conditions. “Testing is grossly inadequate,” says Peter Wild, executive director of Lyme Research Alliance (LRA), a non-profit devoted to raising money to research Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. “With greater study comes ever-greater odds of finding a dependable diagnosis and successful treatment methods.” 

LRA is formally affiliated with the Lyme Disease Association (LDA) and has built strong partnerships with several other Lyme organizations. Most notably, in 2007 LRA partnered with LDA to endow the nation’s first research center for the study of persistent Lyme at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. LRA has also funded innovative research at Stony Brook University, John Hopkins, Texas A & M among others.   

Being informed, however, is still your best preventive tool: There is a wealth of information online about Lyme. Check out sites from the CDC, the Mayo Clinic and LRA, just to name a few. 

 

John Grimes is a retired news correspondent from ABC radio network.