Lyme disease spread by ticks can be hard to diagnose, treat
Life changed one day last fall for the Harkness family.
That’s when they think that 13-year-old Georgina Harkness contracted Lyme disease.
“We had no idea,” she said. “I woke up one morning at a sleepover and just couldn’t get up.” She went to school after the weekend sleepover, but continued to feel horrible, she said.
That was last October. “It never went away,” the girl from Hollywood said.
“The best way to describe it is like having the flu every day,” her mother, Cali Harkness, said. The symptoms include “debilitating fatigue,” so much so that her daughter can’t make it through more than half a day at school, Cali said.
The seventh-grader at Leonardtown Middle School said since getting sick last fall, she can sleep for one hour or for an entire day and still not feel any better.
“I can barely focus,” the girl said. She receives some home teaching through the public school system because she ends up missing multiple days of school every week. She and her mother hope that the symptoms will improve soon, and Georgina doesn’t have to miss out on more of her formative school days.
She desperately hopes that her days of tap dancing, swimming and cheerleading aren’t over.
Often people, including some educators at her school, will doubt the that look said.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks.
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The telltale “bull’s-eye rash” does not always show up after contracting Lyme disease. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.
The Harkness family began seeing doctors and specialists, but could get no firm diagnosis.
This is common, Dr. Paul Beals of Stevensonville said. Beals, who was board certified in family practice, said he now specializes in L yme disease, and uses both traditional and holistic medicine to treat the disease.
“I got into it because there’s such a need,” Beals said. “It’s epidemic.” diagnosis and say Georgina “doesn’t sick,” her mother “It is so frustrating.”
He said that routine lab tests will miss a Lyme disease diagnosis 70 to 80 percent of the time.
“There’s no one-sizefits-all for lyme treatment,” Cali said. Georgina is on a regimen of antibiotics as well as vitamins, antimicrobials and probiotics. She is also on an “ultra diet,” eating healthy without sugar, gluten or dairy.
In a small percentage of cases, symptoms last more than six months, according to the CDC. Although sometimes called “chronic Lyme disease,” this condition is properly known as “Post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome,” according to the CDC, which maintains that people “almost always get better with time,” and does warn against long-term antibiotic treatment.
Beals and others dif fer with the CDC in their opinions of chronic Lyme disease. The doctor acknowledges the contention surrounding chronic Lyme disease, but says that much of modern medicine’s take on the issue is seriously outdated.
He points to the film “Under Our Skin,” an Academy Award semifinalist for best documentary that explores the Lyme medical controversy.
Susan Supplee of Leonardtown has hosted information sessions about Lyme disease at local libraries, where she’s also screened the film.
Supplee’s own fight with Lyme is one of ups and downs. She thinks she contracted it about 20 years ago when she was 19. Through her 20s, she said she would have muscle fatigue and other health issues, but never thought it could be Lyme disease until she was almost 30 years old and was bitten by a tick.
“I just figured chronic fatigue was part of my life at the time,” as she was raising a family, working and teaching college courses in the evenings, Supplee said.
She eventually tested positive for Lyme, and later learned she had unknowingly passed it on to her two sons through birth.
She remembers having “brain fog” while shopping for groceries, a chore that would end up taking three hours as she zoned out, staring at shelves. Since then, she’s tried a variety of treatments, even traveling to Europe twice to see an immunologist.
She’s been on untold regimens of antibiotics, both oral and intravenous, and also focuses on nutritional and holistic treatments.
“I’ve actually run the gamut of treatments,” Supplee said.
Unfortunately, about 1½ years ago she became worse because of babesia, a co-infection of Lyme. Still, though, she is holding on to hope that one day she’ll be rid of the disease.
Lorraine Johnson is the CEO of the nonprofit LymeDisease.org, which aims to educate people about Lyme and how to protect oneself from the disease.
She said the ticks that transmit the disease are tiny, and oftentimes people do not even realize they have been bit by a tick. She recommends using clothing treated with an insect repellent. People should check their bodies after being outdoors, especially in the woods.
“And, the thing people always forget — check your pets,” Johnson added.
She said that school field trips can be a particular concern. Parents should thoroughly check their children after outdoor field trips.
Locally, parents often talk about the multiple ticks their children find on themselves after visits to the Elms Environmental Center. Program staff members there do warn against ticks.
And if someone does have a tick, it should be pulled off immediately.
“The longer they’re on, the greater the risk” of contracting Lyme disease, she said.
Johnson said some cases are treated relatively easy, while others are stuck with debilitating symptoms for months or longer.
“On our website, we have a symptom checker,” Johnson said.
She agreed with Beals, calling most modern tests for Lyme “lousy” and outdated.
“People need to listen to their bodies and follow up,” Johnson, who contracted Lyme disease about 20 years ago, said. She’s OK now, but because of a late diagnosis she had a hard time with the disease.
“When you get bitten, you get what they say is a ‘stew of pathogens,’” she said. Ticks can carry a host of other diseases.
The CDC has estimated about 300,000 cases of Lyme disease are diagnosed each year. Only about 30,000 of those actually get reported, however. Many more likely go undiagnosed since Lyme symptoms can mimic other ailments and even disappear altogether for a time.
In 2015, 95 percent of confirmed Lyme disease cases were reported from 14 states, including Maryland, according to the CDC. Lyme disease is now the most common tickborne illness, according to the CDC.
For more information, go to www.lymedisease. org or www.cdc.gov/lyme.
Cali Harkness, left, of Hollywood has delved into research of Lyme disease since last fall when her daughter, Georgina Harkness, 13, contracted the tick-borne illness.
The blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, is small even compared to a dime.
The blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, can transmit Lyme disease as well as other tickborne diseases.