NYC raises alarm as Lyme disease increases
Spread by ticks, 381 cases in Brooklyn last year
Ten years ago, Cobble Hill resident Kim Bush was a full-time yoga teacher with a healthy lifestyle.
Today, she is recovering from a decade-long bout of Lyme disease. The tick-borne illness, which went undiagnosed for years, gradually attacked her nervous system, joints and muscles, sending her quality of life “out the window.”
On Monday, the mayor and the city’s Department of Health (DOH) raised the alarm over the increasing number of Lyme cases like Bush’s in New York City. Last year, there were 1,083 reports of the disease among New Yorkers — an increase of 137 cases from 2016. This includes 383 cases in Manhattan, 381 in Brooklyn, 149 in Queens, 123 in Staten Island and 47 in the Bronx. Cases are up 44 percent over the past 5 years, and a number of cases may as yet be undiagnosed.
The city says it is putting into place new, aggressive approaches to the disease, but also wants people to educate themselves.
“This is a very serious disease, with really lasting impact on people and we’ve got to take it seriously and we’ve got to fight it in every way we can,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference on Staten Island, home to more disease-bearing ticks than any other borough. He added, “One bite from one of these ticks can change someone’s life really for the worse.”
While a red rash following a tick bite occurs in 60-80 percent of Lyme disease patients, 20-40 percent never see the tell-tale “bullseye” shaped ring.
Bush confirms that her life was forever changed by a bite from a tiny tick, which she never even saw.
“I never knew I was bit,” Bush, 46, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Bush said she had traveled on Long Island and throughout the northeast — areas where infestation by Ixodes scapularis, also known as Blacklegged Ticks or deer ticks — are common, but has no idea where she was actually infected.
Symptoms All Over the Map
According to DOH, early symptoms of Lyme disease include a skin rash that expands over several days, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. If left untreated, the infection may spread to the joints, heart or the nervous system.
Bush said her symptoms “crept in slowly. It didn’t take me down drastically in the beginning.”
She recalls feeling dizzy and getting a “weird electric feeling” in her nervous system, “like a headache all over my body.” This progressed to “total exhaustion — the four-hour nap type of exhaustion.”
After it attacked her brain, she had trouble finding words, experienced “brain fog” and couldn’t keep thoughts going.
Diagnosis is difficult because “different people have different symptoms,” she said. “It masquerades as Parkinson’s, MS or ALS.”
It took years for doctors to finally diagnose Bush with Lyme disease. If diagnosed soon after infection, the antibiotic doxycycline would probably have been effective. Being diagnosed so late meant that extreme measures were needed.
“It outruns your immune system,” Bush said. “If you miss that window, it burrows deeper into your tissues and brain” and there’s no guaranteed fix.
City Taking Steps
“Not only have the number of cases in human beings gone up, we are seeing more and more ticks in our tick surveillance program and close to 20 percent of these ticks are ticks that have Lyme disease,” DOH Commissioner Mary Bassett said at Monday’s press conference.
The conference was held in Staten Island because, while most New Yorkers catch Lyme disease outside of the city, between 50 to 60 percent of Staten Island residents catch the disease right on in their borough. Ticks with the disease, which travel on deer and other animals such as mice, have also been caught in the Bronx.
During high tick activity season from May to July this year, the city monitored ticks at two sites in Manhattan, four in the Bronx, seven in Queens and two in Brooklyn. On Monday, Bassett said the city will be increasing the number of monitoring sites.
The city is also exploring using pesticides on grasslands and experimenting with a new fungus-containing bio-pesticide “that is biologically active but it doesn’t hurt people,” Bassett said. Researchers are also looking at the possibility of treating the deer directly.
Public education is also a part of the city’s plan.
“Protect yourself. That’s a big part of the equation,” de Blasio said. “You are your family’s own best line of defense, because you can identify this problem and act on it and the earlier you act on it the better. Use the bug spray, dress in clothing that helps protect you.”
He added, “I love to go out in, you know, sandals or flip flops and all but I have been schooled many a time … In any area where it is a wooded area or there is tall grasses I’ll put on socks, put on sneakers, those common-sense things really make a difference.”
Bush gives the same advice. “Use spray! I’m such a nature lover it was hard spraying myself,” she said. She also advises people to examine their pets after a walk with them in the woods. “Your pet will bring home a tick.”
“If you register a bite, get into the doctor’s office that very day if possible. Get doxycycline and insist on a 4- to 6-week course of antibiotics,” she said. (DOH recommends treatment for 2 to 4 weeks.)
Bassett confirms Bush’s advice. “Again, [Lyme disease is] very readily treated with common antibiotics, [and it’s] very important to diagnose it and treat it early.”
What to Do If Bitten By a Tick
Bassett says to always check for ticks after a walk in the woods.
“You need to feel behind your ears, your neck line, your waist line, between your legs and you have to check yourself with actually feeling for them, not just looking for them because sometimes they really are a speck and it’s only by feeling a little elevation,” she said.
“Then if you find a tick you have to remove it safely and that means using a pair of fine tipped tweezers, pulling it out with gentle, continuous pressure from the base where it attaches to the skin. Either flush it down the toilet or put it into alcohol. If you are not sure how long you’ve had that tick bite, then you should call your health care provider and talk with them about whether you should come in and discuss beginning antibiotic treatment,” she said.
Bush said it’s been a very long 10 years.
“I literally just turned the corner this spring,” she said. After actively treating the disease for the past two and a half years, “I’m getting it back slowly but surely. It feels great.”
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