Ticks are ready to hitch a ride
The arachnids can spread Lyme disease, other illnesses
by Trish Yerges/Observer correspondent
As my friend and I were traveling scenic Palmer Junction Road outside of Elgin, her 6-year-old daughter informed us that she had an urgent need to use a bathroom.
Being nowhere near a bathroom, we parked the vehicle on the shoulder of the road, and the little girl and her mother hiked out of view into the thick shrubs and towering ponderosa pines of the Blue Mountains.
Not long after returning to the vehicle, the mother picked a tick off her clothes. Using its barbed legs, the tick snagged a ride on her clothing as she brushed past low-lying shrubs in the wooded forest. It was mid-March with above average, warm temperatures and a little early for tick season — or so we thought.
But in reality, tick season has already arrived in Northeastern Oregon because ticks become active when temperatures rise above 40 degrees. Ticks are on the move, looking for live, warm creatures to breed and feed on.
When they feed on their host’s blood, however, they also regurgitate bacteria back into the host. Worldwide, ticks may carry as many as 300 strains of bacteria. The most prevalent tick-borne bacterium is a spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi, the cause of Lyme disease.
According to the National Science Foundation of Arlington, Va., “Lyme disease incidence is rising in the United States, and is in fact, far more common than West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases.”
Thanks to the tick’s easy mode of transportation via deer, rodents and 49 species of migrating birds, most states now report cases of Lyme disease annually, including Oregon. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011 Oregon reported 29 probable cases of Lyme disease.
The original source of this spirochete is not the tick, however.
The primary reservoir for Borrelia burgdorferi is the white-footed mouse, which is found abundantly in North America and Canada. Ticks feed on these mice and act as carriers for Lyme disease.
White-footed mice and ticks come into human contact when woodlands and forest lands become shared habitats for humans and rodents. When this happens, the biodiversity decreases, leaving fewer predators like coyotes, snakes and hawks to kill down the white-footed mouse population.
Wherever the white-footed mouse thrives, so do infected ticks, which results in an increase in Lyme disease cases among humans.
During the mild winters in the Willamette Valley, white-footed mice breed year round, but where winter is colder there is a lull in the breeding for a few months, according to the Natural History of Oregon Coast Mammals.
Not too many summers ago, my killer cat brought a dead, white-footed mouse to my front porch in Summerville. It was a raw reminder that Lyme disease still lurks out there — even in open areas and the farmlands of the tri-county region. The white-footed mouse eats seeds and acorns, and they are good climbers so they live and nest in trees among other places.
Residences that have oak trees or brushy woodlands nearby will attract both mice and deer to feed. The deer taxi the ticks to the same site and the ticks drop off, find a mouse to feed on, then latch onto your dog and into the house the ticks come. It’s that easy. Incidentally, your dog can contract and suffer from Lyme disease too.
This scenario actually happened to my daughter, Lauren, 13 years ago when she was 12. A dog apparently taxied an infected tick into the house. The dog laid at her legs overnight, and within 48 hours, she had two well-defined bull’s-eye rashes on her leg — a classic symptom of Lyme disease.
Lauren was immediately prescribed a course of antibiotics as recommended by the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), but that proved to be insufficient to cure her. Her condition grew worse after her antibiotic course was finished, so her treatment was extended another four weeks, for a total of six weeks. Still, her symptoms returned after the treatment was done. So we sought another blood test.
This time in addition to the B.b. bacterium, her new blood test from an independent lab also came back positive for a co-infection. We learned it is not uncommon for ticks to transmit more than one bacterium from one bite incident.
That infection required a different antibiotic, so during the next nine months, she was on two different antibiotic treatments concurrently, and this individualized, combined treatment gave Lauren her quality of life back. Today she remains very healthy and active.
Sadly, physicians are often censured if they treat Lyme disease patients in an open-ended manner or if they go beyond what the IDSA guidelines dictate as a cure. In Lauren’s case, the IDSA-recommended treatment was followed correctly, and yet it was not curative. In contrast, the open-ended antibiotic therapy was curative.
Until scientists can come to an agreement over this hotly debated issue of treatment, patients in the middle of the debate will suffer unnecessarily with chronic, debilitating symptoms.
Treating Lyme disease early and approaching the patient’s care on an individual basis with flexible treatment protocols will go a long way in preventing prolonged patient suffering, lost wages, dependency on social security disability and care givers as well as increased health care costs.
In the meantime, keeping the white-footed mouse and infected tick populations down is a battle that must wage on if cases of Lyme disease are to be reduced.
For more information about Lyme disease visit http://experiencelife.com/article/what-we-dont-know-about-lyme/ or Confronting Lyme Disease: What Patient Stories Teach Us on Amazon.com