An uptick in Lyme disease in Utah?
May 5, 2015
Lyme disease is caused by a tick-borne bacteria that can infect people bitten by infected ticks. It’s most commonly found in the Northeast and the northern Midwest states. But Utah residents may also be at risk. According to the Center for Disease Control, there were 45 reported cases of Lyme disease in Utah between 2004 and 2013.
The Utah Lyme Disease Alliance, "a support group for Utahns who have, or suspect they have, Lyme disease or other vector borne illnesses," says that ticks infected with Lyme disease are in Utah. State and county officials, however, say they have not yet seen evidence of that.
What everyone is in agreement about is that Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat.
"It’s a really complicated disease," said Caroline Rose, nursing director at the Summit County Health Department. "Some of the symptoms are weird, the diagnostic tests aren’t fully reliable."
Jenny Jones, a vice president and spokesperson for the Utah Lyme Disease Alliance who has suffered from the disease herself, said "all of the tests are so inaccurate right now."
The symptoms can vary widely, she said.
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"There’s a list of about 98 different symptoms that you can get from the disease and it depends on how genetically predisposed you are to certain weaknesses, because it will go to the weakest part of your body." The most common symptoms are severe joint pain, flu-like symptoms and a "bull’s eye" rash around the tick bite, she said.
"The thing that it does to almost everybody is it destroys your thyroid," she added.
The Utah Department of Health (UDOH) says that while "Utah does have a tick species that can carry Lyme disease," studies have shown "that they were not infected."
Becky Ward, a health educator at the UDOH Bureau of Epidemiology, said that "we do have cases of Lyme disease in Utah, but most of those cases come from people traveling to other states or even out of the country and bringing it back. I don’t remember the last case that we had that was actually contracted in Utah… I know it’s been many years."
"So we’re not saying it’s not possible, that it couldn’t happen, it’s just that, even the cases we had last year, anything we’ve had in the past several years, have all been people who traveled out of Utah, been infected, and then came back," she said.
Rose agrees, but says that some incidences of the disease can’t be easily explained.
"We do see a handful of cases, and some of them are from people who have traveled to the tick-infested areas. And others have no history of travel other than in Utah," she said. "There’s not been any current studies on ticks in Utah, whether they carry it or not."
While, the UDOH’s Lyme Disease Fact Sheet says that the studies examining whether Utah ticks carry Lyme were done "over 20 years ago" and such studies "have not been repeated in recent years, so it is not currently known if there has been an increase in Lyme disease carrying ticks," Ward noted that Utah State University has done a more recent survey.
The USU survey of western black-legged ticks, conducted in 2011 and 2012, did not result in detection of Lyme.
Jones said there are "quite a few people in our group who have gotten it at Heber Valley." She said "all those places where people are camping" are common areas for ticks.
UDOH says that May, June and July are the months when ticks are most prevalent. When people are in "tick-infested areas" they are advised to wear light-colored (so ticks are more visible), long-sleeved shirts and hats, long pants tucked into socks, and insect repellent that contains DEET. You should check for ticks daily when in such areas.
While ticks can be about the size of a sesame seed, they can also be smaller.
Rose said that some "are really tiny."
"You might not even know they’re there until they start feeding on you and they expand with your blood," she said.
The proper way to remove a tick is to grasp the tick with tweezers, as close to the skin as possible, and to gently pull it out without crushing it. The tick should not then be handled with bare hands.
The Utah Lyme Disease Alliance (http://www.lymeutah.com) is hosting a "family day picnic" on Saturday, May 16, at Millrace Park in Taylorsville. "People can come, ask questions, talk to doctors, get information," said Jones. "It’s a really good way for people to get help if they need it."
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