Lyme disease – delivered by deer ticks – is a growing problem in Maine and the nation. When a legislative committee hosts a hearing next Tuesday on An Act To Improve Access to Treatments for Lyme disease, committee members better be prepared for some horror stories.
I talked with the bill’s sponsor, Representative Deb Sanderson of Chelsea, earlier this week about her concerns and her bill. But before I get to that, consider the most recent news.
Snow Helped Ticks
“Deep snow likely helping bugs survive cold winter,” was the title in a Maine Sunday Telegram story by David Hench. “Some of the most notorious pests – like ticks, black flies and browntail moth caterpillars – seem to have acclimated well to harsh winters and deep snow, which acts like a thick blanket insulating many of those bugs from the frigid air, experts say,” reported Hench.
“This really cold weather we’ve had, it would really be nasty to overwintering insects, but unfortunately, most of them are 3 feet under, fat and happy sitting in the duff on the ground there well-insulated,” Senator Jim Dill told Hench. Dill is also a pest management specialist with the University of Maine.
“U.S health officials are investigating a new strain of virus linked to the death of a Kansas man, who fell ill after being bitten by a tick, then went into organ failure and died about two weeks later” reported Anna Edney for Bloomberg on March 8.
“The pathogen belongs to a group known as thogotoviruses. The Kansas man’s death is the first time a thogotovirus is known to have caused human illness in the U.S., and only the eighth time one is known to have caused symptoms in people, according to an article published Friday in the Center for Disease Control’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.”
“The Kansas man was doing outdoor work in Bourbon County last year, the CDC said, when he went to the doctor after finding an engorged tick on his shoulder and falling ill a few days later. He had a fever and headache, according to the article, and was given an antibiotic commonly used against tick-borne diseases. The man’s condition didn’t improve, however, and his kidney function deteriorated and he couldn’t breathe on his own. On day 11 of his illness, he died. Kansas officials said in December that they were investigating the virus with the CDC, and that it resembled other tick-borne illnesses. The recent discovery of Heartland virus in Missouri, also possibly linked to ticks, led the CDC to say that ‘that the public health burden of these pathogens has been underestimated.”
Last year, my outdoor news reports on Lyme disease drew more readers than any topic I wrote about all year. Yes, we are concerned. Lyme disease has increased significantly in Maine in recent years, and 2014 set a record with 1,388 confirmed Lyme cases, up from 1,376 in 2013.
Representative Sanderson is one of many who are concerned. Here is the summary of her bill: “This bill prohibits the Board of Licensure in Medicine from disciplining a physician of revoking or suspending a physician’s license for prescribing, administering or dispensing long-term antibiotic therapy to a patient with acute, persistent or chronic Lyme disease if the therapy was pursuant to a treatment plan recommended by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that considered the patient’s individual circumstance or was in the best judgment of the physician with respect to the particular patient or special clinical situation.”
A Portland Press Herald story on the bill included the story of Lisa Lawlor, who “couldn’t find a doctor in Maine willing to treat her chronic Lyme disease, so she traveled to Portsmouth, N.H., to see a physician who prescribed her six months of antibiotics – a much longer treatment than typically recommended.”
It is important that I tell you that my brother, Gordon Smith, is the long-time Executive Vice President of the Maine Medical Association. The MMA will testify against Rep. Sanderson’s bill. Gordon says no physician has been disciplined for treating a Lyme disease patient with long-term antibiotic therapy.
Beyond the debate about this bill, however, the steady spread of Lyme Disease requires all of us to focus more attention on the ticks, the need for a quick response if you’ve been bitten by a tick, and the treatments for those who get to a doctor quickly and those who don’t.
You need to take ticks seriously. There are 14 different ticks in Maine. Dog and moose ticks are large. The other 12 are tiny and very similar. The deer tick that carries Lyme disease is now distributed statewide. Seventy percent of the deer ticks in southern Maine have Lyme, while that percentage diminishes as you go north.
I have a lot of personal experience with ticks embedded in my skin and several friends suffering with Lyme disease. If you need to be scared into action, read my review of the book A Twist of Lyme at www.georgesmithmaine.com. Better yet, read the book.
This story is gut-wrenching, raw, hard to read, relentlessly troubling. Subtitled, “Battling a Disease That ‘Doesn’t Exist,” the book is a collection of author Andrea Caesar’s blog posts as she fought the disease with astonishing toughness and determination. But don’t be fooled – there’s no happy ending. Caesar is still alive and still blogging, but her battle with Lyme will last her lifetime.
The most important advice I can give you is this: Buy a bunch of those small plastic spoons with the slit that can easily extract ticks that are embedded in your skin. Drug stores carry them or you can buy them online. Mine are called Tick-Off. While the standard advice is to use tweezers, they don’t always extract the entire tick out of your skin. And it is critically important that you do that.
We’ll be turkey hunting soon, and I will be guaranteed to come home with ticks. If you discover and extract them quickly, you’ll probably be ok. If they are embedded for 24 to 48 hours, you’ll need antibiotics.
Given that many of us live our lives outdoors, it is only prudent to be prepared. Get those spoons today.