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Lyme disease is not rare in Southeast Missouri

Friday, July 23, 2004

SIKESTON - "Lyme or Lyme-like disease or illness in this area are uncommon but not rare," said Ed Masters, a medical doctor from Sikeston. "When I was working full time, I saw 20 to 30 cases a year."

Tick diseases are most common in the northeastern section of the United States, where diseases are spread by deer ticks, according to Masters, who has researched the tick disease for the past 15 years.

"Here we actually have a close cousin of the northeastern Lyme disease that is spread by the lone star tick," he said. The adult female of this variety has a single white dot on her back, that resembles a lone star in the sky.

"The shorter a tick is on you, the less likely you are to get infected," said Masters, who recommends frequent tick checks. After camping or being outdoors, Masters proposed a thorough tick check before going to bed.

"Ticks like to get in creases of your body," he added. Areas such as the groin and navel and skin hidden by bra straps and belts should be closely checked.

If a tick is merely crawling on an individual, it hasn't fed and there is no danger. Masters said to dispose of the tick, but under no circumstances should it be burned, smothered with Vaseline or covered in kerosene. He explained that this may agitate the tick, causing it to regurgitate or vomit germs on you. "An easy way to dispose of one is to put it on a piece of tape and fold it over," Masters suggested.

On the other hand if the tick is embedded, an individual might be in danger. Masters reported "in this area, about 2 percent of the lone star ticks are infected." Bites by ticks not only cause Lyme disease, but also tularemia (rabbit fever), Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and babeosis, other bacterial illnesses. However, he pointed out that not every infected tick transmits disease.

In this case, Masters said "we recommend that you get a pair of tweezers and get as close to the skin as possible and lift the tick straight up, remove it and put it in a Ziploc bag with a blade of grass." This bag should be saved for 30 days and kept out of the sun.

"After a tick bite, watch for a rash, especially circular or bullseye, a flu-like illness, or fever," Masters cautioned. These symptoms could indicate a tick disease and the infected person needs to see a doctor immediately. The saved tick may come in handy, since doctors can cut the tick apart and run tests to determine if an illness was transmitted through the tick bite.

A blood test is performed to diagnose a tick-related disease. "The tests for early stages are not very good," said Masters. He explained the tests can come up negative when someone is positive and vice-versa. He is currently working on developing a better test to diagnose tick diseases.

"The earlier they (tick diseases) are diagnosed, the more effective the treatment is," he explained. Most of the time, the treatment is effective.

Tick diseases primarily occur between May and September, the peak tick biting months. Masters pointed out that while ticks thrive in humid environments, these months are also the time of year when people spend the most time outdoors.

Masters said he doesn't want to scare people, he simply wants them to be aware of the danger. "If there's an accident on the lake, they don't shut it down, they just encourage people to be more careful," he remarked. "It's the same with the woods, where you should be sensible and careful." He added that ticks are found near animals, since they feed on blood to survive.

Preparation is also a key to avoiding tick bites. "Use DEET and permethrin," Masters suggested. "They work."

Several protective measures are also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Light colored-clothing helps people to see ticks more easily before they reach the skin. "Wearing long-sleeved shirts and tucking pants into socks of boot tops may help keep ticks from reaching your skin," the CDC Web site advised. It also suggested that ticks are usually close to the ground, so it is a good idea to wear high rubber boots for more protection.

The CDC also suggested ways to reduce ticks in residential areas. Removing leaf litter, brush-and wood-piles, and clearing trees and brush helps by admitting more sunlight. Applying pesticides also weakens tick populations in residential areas.

For more information, visit the CDC web site, www.cdc.gov.