You can’t hide from Lyme disease in Florida anymore.
While most people think of the disease in connection with the northeast, Dr. Aisha Thomas-St. Cyr at Sebastian Infectious Disease Care and Steward Health says the number of cases of this tick-borne illness are likely to double in the Sunshine State this year.
And while doubling might seem bad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently increased its projections for the total number of Americans who will contract Lyme Disease nationwide this year by a factor of 10: from 30,000 to 300,000 – or more.
The Florida Lyme Disease Association says the disease is “about 10 times more common than previously reported” in this state, as well.
The mismatch exists mainly because it is one of the most difficult diseases to accurately diagnose – which is a big problem, since it can become painfully debilitating if left untreated.
The website for the education, research and advocacy group, lymedisease.org, says “if Lyme disease is not diagnosed and treated early, it can spread and may go into hiding in different parts of the body. Weeks, months or even years later, patients may develop problems with the brain and nervous system, muscles and joints, heart and circulation, digestion, reproductive system and skin.”
Not scary enough? Try this: The National Institutes of Health says that the quality of life for Lyme patients is “consistently worse” than for patients with congestive heart failure, with pain levels that are “similar to post-surgical patients” and consistent fatigue problems “on par with that seen in multiple sclerosis patients.”
Strangely, Lyme disease is a relatively “new” disease. It was first officially diagnosed in the United States in 1977 in the town of Old Lyme, Connecticut. Originally thought to be limited to the northeast and upper Midwest, Lyme disease now presents itself in nearly every state in the union, as well as in Europe and Asia.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium “Borrelia burgdorferi” which is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks.
“It’s a spirochete. It’s like a cousin of syphilis,” says Thomas-St. Cyr. “That’s why it goes to the nervous system.”
“The current testing is pretty inaccurate early on, unfortunately, because it’s an antibody test,” she continues.
In other words, the test looks for antibodies that your body will eventually produce in reaction to the bacterium, but by the time that happens, it may already be too late.
In its earliest stages, Lyme disease can be stopped – quickly, easily and effectively – with antibiotics, but some insurers won’t pay for those antibiotics until antibodies in your blood are detected.
And that’s the problem. People need to be treated earlier. As Thomas-St. Cyr says, “the best time to treat you is early. Before the disease has a chance to spread to your nervous system, your bones, your joints.”
Anticipating the next question, Thomas-St. Cyr quickly adds that the best thing to do if you’ve been bitten by a tick is to go see your doctor right away. Even if your insurer balks, the out-of-pocket cost for antibiotics that will prevent serious problems later in life can be as little as $15.
She also reminds everyone to bring a complete and updated list of all their current prescriptions and supplements in order to avoid any medication conflicts.
About 85 percent of those bitten by Lyme disease-carrying ticks will quickly develop a “bullseye” rash at the site of the bite, and if you develop such a rash, your doctor can advise you on the best course of action.
Ticks, whether we like it or not, are everywhere. They can hitch a ride into your home on your pet. They can latch onto you unnoticed while you’re hunting, fishing, walking on a nature trail along the Indian River lagoon or even on a well-manicured golf course.
And, as Thomas-St. Cyr points out, it’s not just Lyme disease that can be transmitted by blood-sucking ticks.
“There’s about four or five other things you can get from the same tick. So, even if you don’t find Lyme’s, you have to think of the co-infections.”
All that said, Lyme disease is not a crisis in Florida – at least not yet.
Even though an alarming headline on radio station WFTS’ website last June reported that “Doctors predict Lyme disease epidemic: Tampa Bay possible hotbed of debilitating tick-born disease,” Thomas-St. Cyr simply urges caution, watchfulness and, of course, seeking your doctor’s advice if you think you’ve been bitten by a tick.
Dr. Aisha Thomas-St. Cyr is at Sebastian ID Care at 7955 Bay Street, Suite 2 directly south of the Sebastian River Medical Center. The phone is 772-388-9155.