Deadly New Threats From Bit­ing In­sects

Trillions - - Contents -

Go­ing out­doors is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly more dan­ger­ous be­cause bit­ing in­sects are spread­ing a host of new dis­eases.

Ac­cord­ing to a May 1 re­port from U.S. fed­eral health of­fi­cials, the num­ber of peo­ple who have been in­fected from bites by mos­qui­toes, ticks and fleas has risen by a fac­tor of three in re­cent years.

One of the re­sult­ing prob­lems of this is Lyme dis­ease. It is now epi­demic in many parts of North Amer­ica and is in­fect­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple each year, yet it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to be tested for, most doc­tors know lit­tle or noth­ing about it, treat­ment is of­ten in­ef­fec­tive and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies have con­spired to deny cov­er­age for treat­ment.

Lyme dis­ease is of par­tic­u­lar con­cern for sev­eral rea­sons.

The ticks that carry the dis­ease are them­selves spread­ing more rapidly, es­pe­cially as cli­mate change is pro­duc­ing waves of warmer weather ear­lier in the year than ever be­fore. They are also com­ing far­ther north than be­fore be­cause of the warmer weather.

Ticks re­quire blood to live. A sur­prise to many, though, is that they can sur­vive as long as three years with­out eat­ing.

They can re­main in grasses or on leaves for all that time, just wait­ing to find a po­ten­tial host. Ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists, they de­tect those hosts via breath, odors, mois­ture, vi­bra­tions and even shifts in light.

Once they jump onto a per­son, the process of at­tach­ing and bit­ing can take from min­utes to as long as two hours. When they bite, they do so very dif­fer­ently from other blood­suck­ing in­sects such as mos­qui­toes. They have saliva that in­cludes a com­bi­na­tion of anes­thet­ics (so you don’t feel the bite) and an­ti­co­ag­u­lants (so the blood flows freely be­tween a per­son’s body and the tick). The saliva also in­cludes a pro­tein that sup­presses the hu­man im­mune sys­tem so peo­ple don’t pro­duce an­ti­bod­ies that might kill any kind of bug at­tached for long.

More than two dozen dif­fer­ent kinds of ill­nesses are as­so­ci­ated with ticks, in­clud­ing Colorado tick fever, Rocky Moun­tain spot­ted fever, Powas­san dis­ease and, of course, Lyme dis­ease. More re­cently, there has been an in­crease in Anaplas­mo­sis, Babesio­sis, rab­bit fever, al­pha-gal syn­drome, Heart­land virus and Bour­bon virus. How­ever, of these, per­haps one of the most com­mon and po­ten­tially the most se­ri­ous is Lyme dis­ease.

One of the chal­lenges with Lyme dis­ease is that the symp­toms that ap­pear are of­ten seen as in­di­ca­tions of some­thing else. The ill­ness usu­ally starts with a feel­ing of tired­ness or fa­tigue, fever, headaches and joint or mus­cle pain. If left un­treated, it can pro­duce mus­cle spasms, loss of mo­tor con­trol, paral­y­sis, heart prob­lems and loss of short­term mem­ory. Doc­tors of­ten re­ject the idea that there is some­thing se­ri­ous be­hind the symp­toms and do not seek lab tests that could iso­late the pres­ence of Lyme dis­ease.

An­other chal­lenge with Lyme dis­ease is that the spiro­chete bac­te­ria that causes the dis­ease also in­fects the white blood cells of the host. That is a prob­lem be­cause most lab­o­ra­tory tests for Lyme dis­ease de­pend on the proper func­tion­ing of your white blood cells in or­der to track the an­ti­bod­ies they are try­ing to mea­sure. This is why there are of­ten many false neg­a­tives in Lyme dis­ease tests.

A fur­ther side ef­fect of the abil­ity of Lyme dis­ease spiro­chetes to bur­row into white blood cells is that in or­der to get an ef­fec­tive di­ag­no­sis of the ill­ness, it may be nec­es­sary to be­gin treat­ment for it be­fore you are sure you ac­tu­ally have Lyme dis­ease. When the white cells be­gin to re­spond to the treat­ment and re­gain the abil­ity to work prop­erly again, the tests to de­tect the pres­ence of Lyme dis­ease will be­gin to work prop­erly. This is re­ferred to as the “Lyme para­dox” – that you have to be treated be­fore you can be prop­erly tested for the ill­ness.

With all of this hap­pen­ing, it is per­haps un­der­stand­able that doc­tors will of­ten not treat for the pres­ence of Lyme dis­ease. Con­se­quently, in­sur­ance com­pa­nies will also of­ten not pay for such treat­ment. With ex­pen­sive tests and an­tibi­otics per­haps needed to iso­late and stop the dis­ease be­fore it gets se­ri­ous, this of­ten puts the bur­den of deal­ing with Lyme dis­ease on the in­fected in­di­vid­u­als them­selves.

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, an es­ti­mated 300,000 peo­ple con­tract Lyme dis­ease ev­ery year, with only a frac­tion of the cases ac­tu­ally re­ported be­cause of the in­abil­ity to de­tect the ill­ness and its symp­toms not be­ing unique. Of the con­firmed cases in 2015, 95% came from just 14 states in the United States (though the dis­ease is spread­ing rapidly to other states): Con­necti­cut, Delaware, Maine, Mary­land, Mas­sachusetts, Min­nesota, New Hamp­shire, New Jersey, New York, Penn­syl­va­nia, Rhode Is­land, Ver­mont, Vir­ginia and Wis­con­sin. Of those con­firmed re­ported cases, New York has the largest num­ber. As New York Gov­er­nor An­drew Cuomo noted in his “State of the State Book,” in which he pro­posed a spe­cific state-based con­trol plan for Lyme and other tick-borne dis­eases, he said:

“In some part[s] of New York State, tick-borne dis­eases are on the rise, pos­ing a threat to both in­di­vid­ual New York­ers and our re­gional economies that rely on out­door re­cre­ation. Each year, there are ap­prox­i­mately 8,000 cases of Lyme dis­ease, 700 cases of 266 anaplas­mo­sis, 400 cases of babesio­sis, 100 cases of ehrli­chio­sis and 30 cases of other tick-borne ill­nesses re­ported to the De­part­ment of Health – with many other cases go­ing un­re­ported. And 2017 also brought deadly cases of the rare tick-borne dis­ease Powas­san.”

Tick con­trol in the wild is one way that the state of New York and oth­ers are work­ing to han­dle the ill­ness. Even more im­por­tant is tak­ing care to look for the pres­ence of ticks on you and your fam­ily af­ter be­ing out­side. If symp­toms ap­pear af­ter a while that seem con­sis­tent with the pres­ence of Lyme dis­ease, in­sist both on some treat­ment and a proper di­ag­no­sis.

As a fur­ther step in help­ing slow the spread of Lyme dis­ease and other tick-borne ill­nesses, The Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity has set up a web­site to gather in­for­ma­tion about where you or those you know may have con­tracted the ill­ness and what hap­pened af­ter­wards. The same web­site also in­cludes links to hear from health pro­fes­sion­als who have dealt with tick-borne ill­nesses. Re­port­ing what hap­pened in con­tract­ing the ill­ness, where it hap­pened and what worked in di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment are all im­por­tant for help­ing pre­vent oth­ers from suf­fer­ing. If you have in­for­ma­tion that would be help­ful to share, please take the time to fill out the sur­veys.

Bulls-eye rash — one of the tell-tale signs of a tick bite from one in­fected with spiro­chete bac­te­ria that can cause Lyme dis­ease.

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