AS SEEN IN Quorum, Community Associations Institute, June 2014: Written by Shannon Junior, Aquatic Ecologist
Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne illness reported in the United States, and Virginia and Maryland are among the 13 states in the union where more than 95 percent of the cases have been identified. The disease is caused by the organism Borrelia burgdorferi, a corkscrew-shaped bacterium of the spirochete group. The bacteria exist in very high levels in mammals such as white-footed mice and white-tailed deer, which are immune to the disease but are common hosts for hard-shelled ticks of the genus Ixodes. The disease lives in the midgut of the ticks and is transmitted when they feed on other hosts that are susceptible to the disease, such as humans and dogs.
In humans, the first sign of infection may be the highly publicized “bull’s-eye” rash, followed by the development of flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, chills, fever, joint and muscle pain, and swollen glands. In dogs, the disease typically presents as acute arthritis, causing lameness and severe pain, often accompanied by lethargy and a loss of appetite. The commonly prescribed treatment for Lyme disease in both humans and dogs is a long course of tetracycline or penicillin-like antibiotics, such as doxycycline, amoxicillin and ceftriaxone. In severe and untreated cases, Lyme disease can eventually cause severe neurological problems and organ failure, although these long-term effects are seen more frequently in humans than in pets.
Unfortunately, the ticks that carry Lyme disease are extremely small and hard to spot, and the symptoms of the disease often go undetected or are misdiagnosed. The human vaccination that was released in 1998 by Smith Kline Beecham was pulled off the market in 2002 due to a class action lawsuit against the manufacturer and insufficient consumer demand. There is a vaccination available for dogs, although there is dissent among veterinary professionals as to its effectiveness, and also some concern that it may actually cause the disease in a small percentage of the dogs receiving it.
Common sense preventive actions remain the most effective strategies for avoiding tick bites and infection with Lyme disease. When spending time outdoors, avoid areas where ticks tend to congregate, such as wooded areas with heavy leaf litter or unmaintained fields with tall grass. We can also reduce the potential tick habitat around our homes by frequently cutting grass and brush areas, and removing the clippings and leaf debris. A 3-to5-foot buffer of mulch or gravel around wooded areas will restrict the movement of ticks from their habitat to our recreation areas, and patios and play equipment should be located in open, sunny areas whenever possible. We should also keep our yards clear of debris piles where both ticks and their rodent hosts may hide.
When spending time outdoors in potential tick habitat areas, use DEET repellent on exposed skin, and permethrin repellent on clothing, boots, packs and other gear. There is little danger of Lyme disease infection within the first 12 hours of feeding before the ticks become engorged, so it is critical to remove ticks from our pets and ourselves as soon as possible after outdoor activities. Do a thorough tick check with a mirror or a “good buddy,” checking very carefully in skin fold areas, under the arms, behind the knees, around the waistband, and in the hair. It is also recommended to shower with hot water as soon as possible to remove undetected trespassers. Place clothes in the dryer on the highest heat setting for an hour to kill any remaining ticks. Pets should be given tick preventive medications throughout the year to reduce their risk of contracting the disease and they should also be checked thoroughly every day after they have been outdoors. Unattached infected ticks may hide in pet hair and attach later to a human.
Although there are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they estimate that there are probably 10 times as many that go unreported or undiagnosed. The co-infections that accompany the chronic form of the disease are often more debilitating and difficult to treat than the primary infection. Lyme disease is a severe public health problem in the United States and the greatest hope of public health professionals is that a new vaccination will be developed and licensed in the near future.
Shannon Junior is an aquatic ecologist and regional manager for SOLitude Lake Management. She has worked in the pond and lake management industry since 2000 and has a B.S. in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University. Junior served on the Technical Advisory Committee to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which helped to develop the draft permit for the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System regulations for pesticides.
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