About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Lyme strikes close to home

The bulls-eye rash that is symptomatic of Lyme disease. (CDC photo)

When Dr. Karen Remley, state health commissioner, scheduled a press conference last week about Lyme disease, I thought of my 13-year-old nephew, Zander.

Zander, a resident of Loudoun County, has been suffering from Lyme disease for about a month. He had been sick for a while­—lethargic, headache, joint aches—when his parents took him to the doctor. A blood test confirmed that he had Lyme. No one ever saw the tell-tale bulls-eye rash on him.

The doctor prescribed a 21-day course of antibiotics. Zander has gradually improved, though my brother reports that he is still not himself. He has been out of school and receiving home instruction since April 30.

State health officials are seeing more cases like Zander’s, especially in Northern Virginia. They held the press conference to ask the public to take precautions and to remind doctors to consider the disease when making diagnoses.

“This is a very important and emerging infection in Virginia,” said Dr. Keri Hall, state epidemiologist, at Thursday’s briefing.

Hall, no relation, said state officials have watched the blacklegged tick, the primary culprit, extend its range into the northern regions of Virginia and then southward and westward.  As a result, the number of cases started increasing in 2000, jumped dramatically in 2007, and now stand at 908.

The Fredericksburg area appears to have been spared so far. It recorded 25 cases in 2008, 11 in 2009 and none so far in 2010, according to the Health Department.

Hall explained that a tick must remain attached to a person for 36 hours to transmit the disease. When that happens, the person usually develops a distinctive bulls-eye rash, a red circle on the skin, surrounded by a pale circle and another red circle. The disease also produces viral-like symptoms of the type that Zander experienced: muscle aches, headaches and fever. Symptoms appear from three to 30 days after the bite.

Hall outlined several ways to prevent the disease:

  1.  Avoid tick habitats. “They like to live in leaf litter and tall grasses,” she said.
  2. Dress appropriately. This means light clothing, with tucked shirts and long sleeves. The ticks usually attach to victims by crawling up their shoes, then legs.
  3. Use insect repellent. Hall recommended  DEET, which is applied to the skin, and permethrin which is applied to clothing.
  4. Do a full-body tick check after being outdoors. Also, take a shower and wash the clothes you were wearing.
  5. If you do find a tick, don’t  squeeze, jerk or twist it when removing , Hall said. Use tweezers and grab the tick where its head enters the skin. Gently pull out.

“Early recognition and diagnosis, and then early treatment , can cure Lyme disease and prevent the late complications,” Hall said.

(The Virginia Department of Health has created a slide show about Lyme disease with some interesting photos, which can be seen here.)