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August 20, 2013

Lyme disease isn't the only tick malaise

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — An old friend who died recently had spent decades fighting against the health threats posed by nuclear power, fracking and many other forms of pollution. But it wasn’t man-made toxins that took him down; it was a tick. 

The last time I had a chance to spend a lot of time with Chip at his Dutchess County home, it was the summer of 2004 and he had a huge bag of George W. Bush buttons. And they weren’t urging his re-election.

I still have one that reads, “Stop Mad-Cowboy Disease” over a picture of Bush wearing his cowboy hat.

Now, however, we have to figure out a way to stop the spread of tick-borne diseases.

By now, we’ve all heard of Lyme disease, the sickness caused by deer-tick infection that first appeared in Connecticut more than 25 years ago. The number of Lyme disease cases has been increasing steadily in Otsego County to more than 20 confirmed incidences a year. In the Hudson Valley, however, the number of cases annually is in the thousands. 

But even after all that time and all those cases, debate still rages over the identification and treatment of the disease. There are numerous “probable” cases each year because some physicians are hesitant to diagnose the symptoms as Lyme disease.

Lyme disease symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.

Robert Tuthill, of the Oneonta-Cooperstown Lyme Disease Support Group, has told The Daily Star that, “unless you are treated correctly, you’ll have it for life.”

Rep. Chris Gibson earlier this year said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must do more to come up with an accurate test for Lyme disease and more effective treatments.

Experts say that a tick must be attached to a person for about 36 hours for the disease to be transmitted. That means careful monitoring of your body can be an effective means of prevention.

But now there is a new, deadlier, more-quickly transmitted tick-borne disease called Powassan Encephalitis that has caught the attention of health officials and lawmakers.

It is likely that Powassan is what took my old friend, though officially he died of a “rare, progressive, degenerative neurological disorder.” 

There have been only about 15 confirmed cases in the past decade, but that number is slowly rising. The most recent victims were in Dutchess and Saratoga counties, and that helped motivate Sen. Charles Schumer to call on the CDC to immediately allocate resources toward the study, prevention and treatment of the emerging Powassan virus threat. 

He also announced his support for federal legislation to direct more resources and attention toward fighting back against the growing problem of other tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme disease.

Symptoms of the Powassan virus, according to health experts, are similar to those of meningitis or Eastern Equine Encephalitis: confusion, headaches, dizziness, neck pain — all caused by a swelling of the brain that could be fatal or lead to long-term neurological disorders. Like many viruses, there is no known cure, and doctors can only treat the symptoms.

Unlike Lyme disease, it is possible to contract the Powassan virus within minutes of a tick bite.

“Already, Lyme disease is one of the least-understood illnesses plaguing residents in the Hudson Valley and the entire Northeast. Now, with the emerging threat of newer tick-borne illnesses like Powassan virus and antibiotic-resistant strains of Lyme, the need for more research is clear and compelling,” Schumer said.

The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act would help fight the growing epidemic by improving and expanding the government’s efforts to contain the spread of these and other tick-borne illnesses. 

The bill also would expand research into Lyme disease, improve education, and require the government produce a report to educate doctors and other health professionals on the latest research and treatment options for the disease.

I have never been one to get real hyper about germs, insects or other possible culprits that may affect your health. And I must admit I have secretly smiled when hearing that people were going to start covering themselves when mowing the lawn or hiking.

After hearing of my friend’s death, however, I’m starting to wonder.

It certainly is time for the federal government to get more involved in tick-borne diseases, and after decades of indecision over diagnoses, it is past time for the health community to be more up-to-date on the illnesses.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.