Lyme disease on the rise

Local couple experiencing illness

Photo provided by The Ohio State University Female black-legged deer ticks are shown for size comparison next to a penny. The ticks can transmit Lyme disease and are smaller than other species, making them difficult to detect.

When Washington County resident Kristin McCartney got sick in the late fall, she had so many symptoms it was difficult for doctors to figure out what was wrong with her.

“She was in intense pain, she couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes, and she felt numbness in her legs,” her husband Marcus McCartney said. “We thought for a while she was having a stroke.”

Kristin, who works in West Virginia, said she began feeling unwell in mid-September.

“It started with feeling bad, a lot of pressure, headaches,” she said. “I thought it might be a sinus infection, so I went to a Med Express in Charleston. The doctor there didn’t seem to think that’s what it was, but he gave me some antibiotics.”

On Sept. 18 she realized her eyes weren’t blinking in sync, and Marcus noticed her mouth was drooping on one side. “Why are you talking out of one side of your mouth?” he asked her.

A friend took her to an emergency room, where they decided she had Bell’s palsy, a temporary problem with facial nerves, but did a full workup to check for stroke and sent her home with steroids to treat the palsy.

It cleared up but she then began getting back pain which gradually crept up into her neck despite physiotherapy treatments. She was x-rayed at an emergency room and given pain medication.

“It just kept getting worse. I almost passed out while giving a presentation,” she said.

A return trip to the emergency room got a referral to a neurologist, but the next day she felt numbness in one arm.

“My aunt is a nurse, and she took me to WVU in Morgantown,” Kristin said. “They admitted me, and an MRI showed meningitis.”

She was released after four days, but then a test came back positive – for Lyme disease. Out of four tests, one of two blood samples was negative and two cerebro-spinal fluid tests were positive, she said.

Altogether, it had taken six weeks and numerous trips to clinics and emergency rooms to figure out what the source of the problems was. The neurologist at the Morgantown medical center told her he had seen many Lyme cases out of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

“I really felt hopeless after a while,” she said. “I’d go to a clinic or an ER, and nobody could give me an answer.”

She said she feels fully recovered now but for a long time experienced what she described as “a brain fog,” a sense of not being able to concentrate. The neurologist who examined her said her symptoms were typical of European Lyme illness.

Lyme is spread by the black-legged tick, and Marcus said that although there is a characteristic bullseye rash that appears at the bite location, neither he nor Kristin could recall seeing it.

Lyme disease cases, which are one of five insect-vectored diseases reportable to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have increased exponentially in Ohio over the past several years. Ohio had 223 reportable cases in 2017, a number that is probably low because many go undiagnosed. During the previous year 122 were reported; in 2007, there were 33.

The disease also affects animals and is a particular concern for dogs.

According to Companion Animals Parasite Council data, 5,180 dogs in 2018 tested positive for Lyme out of 208,985 tested, or one of every 55. In Washington County, 134 tested positive of 2,746 tested, or one out every 21.

Tim McDermott, a veterinarian with more than 20 years of practice in Franklin County who now works for The Ohio State University Extension, said prevention is the key because Lyme can be a very serious disease in dogs, sometimes causing permanent damage to neurological systems or major organs.

Numerous products such as flea collars and oral medicines can kill parasitic insects such as fleas, ticks and mosquitoes, but preventing Lyme means finding a product that will not only kill the insects but repel them. Once a dog is bitten, the possibility of infection is there whether the insect is killed later or not.

“There are multiple topical and oral medications, and what I tell folks is that they are variable in their effectiveness, so work with your veterinarian to pick a product that prevents the dog from getting bitten,” he said.

Although avoiding woodlands and meadows is a frequent strategy for avoiding ticks, he said, they are in fact everywhere.

“You are going to be exposed to ticks regardless of where you are, what will change is the higher or lower risk to specific species,” he said. Lyme is transmitted by the black-legged or deer tick, which prefers woodlands but can be found anywhere.

“Make a personal protection plan for your family, and include your companion animal in that,” he said.

Protective measures include dressing with arms and legs covered, using insect repellant that includes 0.5 percent permethrin or EPA-approved chemical, avoiding areas with high grass and heavy leaf litter, and checking clothing and skin for ticks after being outdoors, according to the CDC.

McDermott said infected dogs exhibit lethargy and malaise. “They just act sick,” he said.

Treatment is generally a course of antibiotics.

“They can be effective but it depends on how quickly the treatment starts. Lyme can cause permanent damage,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marcus McCartney also is experiencing Lyme disease symptoms and recalls a tick bite on his foot early in the winter. He’s on his third course of antibiotics.

“It started Nov. 12,” he said. “My blood pressure shot up to 170, and I got medication for that, but for two months I’ve had problems concentrating, a general feeling of fatigue and a sense of disconnection mentally. It’s hard to describe, and it’s hard to diagnose. I hope word is getting out in the medical community.”

McDermott said the surge of Lyme disease is part of a changing landscape for Ohioans, with new species of ticks showing up and increasing incidence of Lyme disease.

“I’m 55. When I was a kid, we’d get a tick, and it’s something gross but we’d just tear it off and carry on,” he said. “But now we’ve got different species of insects, they carry disease more commonly, and the incidence of those diseases is increasing. We have to take the threat more seriously, we can’t rely on the same thinking from 20, 30 or 40 years ago.”