By Bill McCabe — As published in Hudson Valley News
At its May voting meeting, the Dutchess County Legislature passed an official proclamation declaring the month of May as Lyme Disease Awareness Month. The proclamation recognizes the threat of Lyme and other tick borne diseases to the health and well being of the citizens of Dutchess County and reminds all of us to routinely check for ticks on ourselves, our children, and our pets.
Anyone who has lived in Dutchess County for any length of time has either suffered from Lyme or one of the other tick borne diseases, or has known someone who has. If a tick bite is noticed right away and the patient gets the correct dose of antibiotics, recovery is usually complete. However, many tick bites go unnoticed and produce neither immediate symptoms nor the “tell-tale” rash we are told to look for. Approximately 45% of tick bites have no rash at all. While infected deer ticks are carried by all types of wild life, the ticks are spread mostly by field mice, chipmunks, and other small animals found in backyards all over Dutchess County.
Even when symptoms appear, if the blood test for Lyme turns out to be negative, some physicians will not prescribe the appropriate type or amount of antibiotics needed to treat Lyme and/or insurance companies will not cover treatment. Experts tell us that the blood test that is now used to diagnose Lyme produces 50% false negatives. A diagnostic tool that has a 50% failure rate is practically useless, but that is what many doctors and insurance companies use to determine treatments.
The combination of undiagnosed tick bites and the high failure rate of the blood test has led to many cases of long term Lyme and, for some, recurring bouts of Lyme with symptoms that come and go, change patterns, or get progressively worse. While Lyme disease is the most common tick borne disease, other more serious infections are also spread by the deer ticks, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and powassan viral encephalitis. A bite from a deer tick can transmit any of these, and many ticks are infected by more than one of these diseases.
Information about tick borne infections can be obtained on line at www.stopticks.org, an excellent source for accurate information on tick borne diseases in Dutchess County, or from experts at the Dutchess County Department of Health (486-3400). A variety of support groups are active in Dutchess County, including the Mid-Hudson Lyme Disease Support Group, which meets monthly in Pleasant Valley (email at Lymey2@aol.com).
The effects of long term tick borne diseases are not only physical; there are emotional, psychological, and financial tolls to pay as well – for the patient and the patient’s family. I personally know people who have had to leave their jobs, have lost their homes, and have suffered severe depression because of recurring Lyme or long term cross infections from tick bites. As documented by researchers, the symptoms are not consistent from case to case, and, depending on the part of the body that is infected, can easily be misdiagnosed as any one of over 300 diseases, including arthritis, MS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, autism, Alzheimers, and Lupus.
One of the best documentary films made in the past few years is “Under Our Skin,” which grippingly shows the devastating effects of long term tick borne diseases and the types of treatment that are needed when those diseases have been misdiagnosed. It is worth going out of you way to see “Under Our Skin.”
In the 1980’s Lyme disease made its appearance in Dutchess County, having made its way northeast from coastal Connecticut. Since then, cases of Lyme have appeared across the United States while the number of cases diagnosed in Dutchess County has steadily increased, making Dutchess an epicenter of Lyme and the othe diseases spread by deer ticks. During the 1990’s the number of reported cases of Lyme in Dutchess went from 263 in 1990 to 1419 in 1999. In New York State in 2009, Dutchess County ranked second to Orange County in the number of confirmed cases of Lyme, according to the Dutchess County Department of Health.
Dutchess County consistently ranks in the top three counties in the nation for per capita cases of Lyme. Nationally, there was a 38% increase in Lyme between 2006 and 2007. Although there are fewer reported cases of the other tick borne diseases, the numbers are increasing at a faster pace than for Lyme. It is estimated that the actual infection rate is ten times what is reported.
Some extremely important scientific research on the ecology and behavior of ticks is being done by Dr. Richard Ostfeld at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. The Dutchess County Legislature and the Legislature’s Tick Task Force have consistently supported the work of Dr. Ostfeld and his team as they conduct basic research and field work on how to control ticks.
Clearly what is needed as soon as possible is an accurate blood test to diagnose Lyme and the other tick borne diseases. To this end, legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Smith of N.J. and in the U.S. Senate by Senator Dodd of Connecticut to establish a federal Tick-Borne Advisory Committee and fund research for the Center For Disease Control and Prevention to develop a foolproof blood test. Both Congressional bills enjoy bi-partisan support and include Charles Schumer in the Senate and Maurice Hinchey, John Hall, and Scott Murphy in the House as co-sponsors. The new law would provide $20,000,000 per year for 2010 through 2014 for the Committee’s activities and for the development of the blood test.
Only when an accurate diagnostic blood test is developed for Lyme and the other tick borne diseases will patients get the early treatments they need and the assurance that they will not be denied coverage by insurance plans.