Careful Out There! Those Ticks Are Hungry
TEWKSBURY -- When Carl Restuccia stepped outside the door of his Lowell condominium, he recalls telling a neighbor he was feeling very ill and needed to see the doctor.
Too bad it wasn’t the flu, as it would pass in a week or so.
The tall, strapping Tewksbury-based tree removal specialist had fallen victim to a tiny, yet dangerous, predator: an eight-legged black (deer) tick.
He had Lyme disease.
But it got worse. As is normal procedure, he started an antibiotic regimen but feelings of lethargy continued. Another blood test revealed he had contracted another tick-borne illness called babesiosis.
Restuccia spent the next week shivering and sweating so profusely that he protected his mattress by placing a quilt over it. He says the night before the fever broke, “I felt like I was dying.”
Restuccia doesn’t want what happened to him to happen to anyone else. That’s why he’s sharing his story in one of the worst tick years in recent memory.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of reported illnesses from mosquito, tick, and flea bites more than tripled from 2004 to 2016, from 27,388 to 96,000.
The trend, experts say, shows no signs of abating.
With July beginning tomorrow, ticks may be at their busiest in what already has been a busy tick season. Ticks are still in their larval and most dangerous stage of life. July can be the peak month for tick bites.
According to the state Department of Public Health, there were 1,424 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Middlesex County in 2017, compared to 1,149 in 2013. The trend is equally alarming on a state-wide basis: 8,692 cases in 2017 compared to 5,829 in 2013.
Babesiosis, which Restuccia contracted, is one of several pathogens in the black-legged tick’s repertoire.
“Ticks are just the vector,” says Dr. David Crandell, who is on the medical staff at the Dean Center of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. “They will spread whatever diseases they have.”
All the pathogens have similar but not identical symptoms. In addition to Lyme disease and babesiosis, ticks spread anaplasmosis and the Powassan virus. Powassan was first reported in Ontario in 1958. Powassan is rare, but can have devastating and sometimes fatal consequences, causing meningitis and encephalitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Researchers at Yale University say that the Lyme bacteria moved without consequence for at least 60,000 years in the forests of the Northeast, before the arrival of any humans and long before suburbanization eroded deer habitats. Yale researchers reached this conclusion after studying the bacteria’s genome.
Today ticks and the illnesses they carry occur “at the interface between people and the woods,” says Crandell.
These diseases can cause significant impairment, including cognitive issues. Some people never fully recover. Crandell noted that he has been working with some patients since the center opened in 2015.
The first documented case of Lyme was in Lyme, Conn., just a couple dozen miles from Yale, which conducts leading edge research into the disease. From that first reported case, the disease has exploded throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest. It continues its spread. The CDC says it receives 30,000 reports of Lyme disease each year and estimates that 300,000 cases have occurred in the last decade.
These numbers are deceiving, however. Many cases, the experts say, go unreported.
Dr. Roxanne Latimer, Lowell General Hospital’s director of urgent care, says a blood test for Lyme and other tick-borne pathogens, takes time. Labs conduct tests for antibodies, which do not immediately appear in the bloodstream. It takes several days to confirm a diagnosis. The test for Lyme can also produce a false positive for mononucleosis.
Latimer says that doctors will often give a “prophylactic dose” of doxycycline to a patient who reports a tick bite or who has symptoms of Lyme. In fact, she recommends that patients see a doctor immediately and, where possible, preserve the tick to help with the diagnosis.
Doctors rely on what they see and what patients tell them.
“Medicine is sometimes more art than science,” says Latimer.