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One man’s tick-bourne Lyme Disease fears date back more than 40 years, long before he contracted his own case in 2012. Here are his views on risks, prevalence and the inevitably mixed information that comes from the medical community.
I trace my irrational fear of ticks to the summer of 1975 when I was a proctor in charge of a cabin at Camp Easter Seal in Craig County. When I was checking in a 10-year-old camper, his mother explained that his intelligence had been normal until the year before when he had been bitten by a tick carrying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Sobbing, the mom told me that her hesitation in taking her son, who had developed a high fever, to the doctor had resulted in him becoming permanently mentally disabled.
Ever since, whenever I have witnessed a tick on me or anyone else, I have “freaked out” as my students at Lord Botetourt High School (where I’m an English teacher) would say. This is rather an unseemly reaction for someone whose other career is as an outdoor writer/photographer. While on various assignments, I have survived close encounters with black bears, wild boar, timber rattlers, copperheads, buffalo, bobcats and various rabid animals, as well as being hurled from capsized boats while coursing through Class IV rapids—and had a grand time all the while.
Unfortunately, as events of recent years have proved, my irrational fear of ticks has proven to be, well, all too rational. On April 10, 2012, I was on assignment, covering an Augusta County cattle grower whose methods of raising bovines are very environmentally friendly. Even though the wind chill that day had been in the upper 30s and my long pants had been tucked inside knee-high boots, when my wife Elaine and I returned to the car, we found a half dozen or so blacklegged ticks (a carrier of Lyme Disease, the nymphs are about the size of tomato seeds, the adults the size of apple seeds) on me. Some had embedded themselves.
By late May, I was experiencing fatigue which I blamed on the stress of finishing the school year. By late June, my left toes were constantly having tingling sensations (known as neuropathy) and by early July the right ones became similarly affected. It was then that I feared that I had contracted Lyme Disease (LD) and contacted my personal physician.
A dozen or more years ago that same doctor (who asked that his name not be mentioned in any story involving LD), had warned me that my outdoor lifestyle made me a prime candidate to develop Lyme. As a precaution, he had also given me an experimental vaccine against LD, which according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is no longer available because of low demand and which would no longer protect humans even if they had taken it. Oddly enough, however, vaccines exist for dogs but not for cats.
Before I even went to the doctor, I felt sure that I had LD, for I knew the symptoms. Besides fatigue and neuropathy, other early indicators include fever, chills, headaches, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, and perhaps the most common one—an expanding bulls-eye rash. Months later, other signs could include enlarged lymph glands, joint pain (particularly in the knees), meningitis, and Bell’s palsy, which is a loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face.
Many months later, even after folks feel that they have overcome the disease, these symptoms can appear: arthritis, severe fatigue, eye inflammation, liver inflammation, and heart problems such as an irregular beat. The American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF) says the following symptoms could also materialize: “Disabling neurological disorders (disorientation; confusion; dizziness; short-term memory loss; inability to concentrate, finish sentences or follow conversations; mental ‘fog’.”