The threat of Lyme Disease

The threat of Lyme Disease

By Robert A. Hedeen

By Robert A. Hedeen


With the arrival of spring only a few weeks away, we should be aware of one of the dangers warmer weather brings; the renewal of tick activity as they aggressively search for blood meals from warm-blooded animals. For more than 100, years ticks have been known to transmit disease organisms to man and animals, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Texas cattle fever, Tularemia, Colorado tick fever, and Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is the latest addition to the list of tick-transmitted diseases, having only been first identified in 1975 in the region of Old Lyme, CT. Children showed signs of what initially appeared to be juvenile arthritis. They were recognized as having the first known cases of Lyme disease in the United States.

Presently, approximately 17,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each year from widespread areas of the country with a total of some 177,114 cases diagnosed since 1980.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana report the disease seems to be progressing along the Illinois River into southern portions of our state and into Missouri. Ticks infected with the causative agent of Lyme have been found in the Quad Cities, Peoria, LaSalle, and Putnam counties.

Though counties in northern Illinois were not mentioned as harboring infected ticks, they simply may have not yet been detected. Lee Sanderson-Eads of the Division of Disease Control of the Winnebago County Health Department reports three cases of Lyme disease were confirmed from Winnebago County in the year 1999, five in 2000, and six in 2001. As a positive diagnosis of Lyme is difficult to make, he believes there are many more people infected with the disease in our area than these figures indicate.

Lyme disease is primarily transmitted by ticks belonging to the genus Ixodes, which includes the common deer tick. The infectious agent is a spirochaete-type microorganism, similar to the bacterium causing syphilis. Early symptoms of Lyme infection include fatigue, stiff neck, and flu-like symptoms such as headache, chills, and fever. Sometimes a target-shaped rash develops; however, in some cases this semi-diagnostic rash does not appear.

Without treatment, the spirochaetes multiply, and the disease progressively worsens. The second stage, occurring within weeks to months after the tick bite, may affect the heart and nervous system. The third stage of the disease results in chronic and painful arthritis. When the disease has progressed to the tertiary stage, treatment is difficult and recovery is slow.

The best medicine for Lyme disease is preventive medicine—

preventing the bites of infected ticks. When in the field during the warm months of tick season, boots should be worn with the pants legs tucked in. It makes sense to wear a head covering and a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrist. In spite of these precautions, the wily ticks will frequently find access to your body. So a good repellent should be worn on strategic parts of one’s attire. Most insect-tick repellents on the market today contain Deet as the active ingredient and work well if used as directed.

Of prime importance in preventing Lyme and other tick-borne disease is to inspect the body carefully for the presence of these bloodsuckers at frequent intervals when in tick-inhabited areas. If one of these hard-bodied monsters is discovered embedded in your skin, it should be removed immediately. Studies have shown a tick must be attached to the body and feeding for several hours before pathogens are transmitted via its saliva, which contains a blood anti-coagulant.

Few rituals seem more embedded in folklore than procedures for tick removal. You name it, and someone has tried it or heard that it is successful. The application of gasoline, petroleum jelly, glowing cigarette butts, butter, kerosene, fingernail polish, alcohol, and cresosote have all been recommended as methods of encouraging the tick to disengage itself from your body. Some old timers recommend unscrewing an embedded tick, unscrewing clockwise if you are north of the equator and counterclockwise if you are south of the equator.

In spite of all of this , bona fide tick experts say there is only one good way to remove a tick, and that’s to pull it loose with a pair of tweezers or small forceps. The recommended procedure is to grab the beast as close as possible to the mouthparts and, without jerking, pull upward gently and steadily. This is a rather delicate operation as ticks have numerous harpoon-like barbs on the mouthparts and secrete a cement-like substance that helps them adhere firmly to the host. In most cases, the tick can be freed without leaving its mouthparts embedded or tearing loose a piece of skin, which will occur if the creature is unceremoniously yanked loose.

After removing the tick, the bite site should be disinfected and the offender disposed of by burning in alcohol, or flushing down the drain. Don’t handle the tick with the bare fingers as the spirochaetes may enter the body through the broken skin. The bare fingers should never be used as a substitute for forceps.

Lyme disease is rapidly developing into a major public health problem, and considerable time and research funds are being expended in order that it may be effectively combated. However, if we go into the outdoors aware of its presence and take the necessary precautions to prevent infection, there is little reason our activities in the natural world should be curtailed.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!