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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel^^Dead ticks floating in alcohol. The large ticks are common dog ticks, familiar to most people. The small tick is a deer tick, the species that carries Lyme Disease - much smaller and harder to spot than a dog tick.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel^^Dead ticks float in alcohol in the lid of the Brooks family "tick jar." The large ticks are common dog ticks. The very small tick at the top of the picutre is an immature tick of uncertain species. The small tick floating at about 11 o'clock of the lid's "clock face" is an adult deer tick, the species that carries Lyme Disease.
Monday, March 19, 2012

Science Cafe tackles Lyme disease in humans and pets

David Brooks

Long before the Ides of March, at a time of year when we’re usually still shoveling snow, I came indoors from the yard and found a tick crawling up my arm.

Yucky, but not, I fear, an anomaly. We are certain to see a plague of bugs that thrived during this winter-that-wasn’t and are looking to feast on any warm-blooded creature that passes by.

I never used to care much about ticks, but Lyme disease has changed that.

Lyme disease can lead to rashes, fevers, muscle and joint aches, and in some cases long-term arthritis and even serious neurological problems like memory loss or delusions. It is caused by a bacteria in the bloodstream that gets there when an infected tick bites us and stays connected for 24 hours or more.

Lyme is scary because it’s new, producing uncertainty about how dangerous it is, the extent of its long-term effects and how best to react.

Is it a plague, an annoyance, or something in between?

Why isn’t there a vaccine for humans, as there is for pets?

Is it so dangerous that we should curtail the outdoor activities that are one of the joys of life in New Hampshire?

These are good questions, which is why I imagine they will be raised at this week’s Science Cafe New Hampshire on Wednesday evening at The Barley House restaurant in Concord, starting at 7.

As always, the free informal Science Cafe will be driven by audience questions.

The panel will feature two physicians – Jodie Dionne-Odom of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Steve Clark, a naturopath from Wolfeboro – who have different opinions about the most contentious Lyme question: whether the disease can exist in people in a chronic form, and whether long-term antibiotic use is appropriate.

That issue is contentious enough that the Legislature stepped in last year, overriding medical strictures against long-term antibiotic use, and I suspect the matter will take up a lot of the two-hour discussion. It might be worth showing up a little early to make sure you get a seat in the downstairs bar where it takes place.

The Cafe will also have a third panelist: state veterinarian Steve Crawford. We invited him because Lyme is, if anything, even more confusing in pets than in humans.

“One of the challenges in veterinary medicine is that Lyme disease is not a reportable disease, so our office doesn’t have comprehensive data on what the diagnosis are, case numbers, findings around the state,” Crawford said.

Anecdotal evidence from veterinarians indicates the number of positive Lyme tests in cats and dogs has soared in recent years, although it’s not clear how much is due to a spread in the disease and how much to an increase in testing.

So what’s confusing? Having a positive Lyme test is not the same as having the disease.

The test detects antibodies in the blood, which are created by the animal’s immune system to fight the Lyme bacteria. A positive result means the animal has been infected, but doesn’t mean it’s sick.

“The estimates are that 90-plus percent of animals that are ever exposed or affected don’t develop clinical signs,” said Crawford. “There are lots of diseases like that, in which there is exposure but no illness.”

If your dog or cat isn’t sick, should it be treated? Treatment with antibiotics costs money and increases the chance of creating drug-resistance bacteria, so it should only be done if there’s a need. Mere infection doesn’t mean there’s a need, but that can be hard for owners to just sit back and do nothing when told that Fido or Fluffy tested positive for Lyme.

This issue has led some veterinarians to argue that animals shouldn’t even be tested for Lyme antibodies unless they start showing signs of disease. That leads to another complication, in that it’s harder to tell what’s wrong with a pet than with a person.

The main symptom is stiffness in the joints, visible to us laymen, but that’s not exactly Lyme-specific.

“An animal not getting up to go and eat, not wanting to go on the walk it normally goes on – that’s indicative. But unfortunately it’s indicative of a lot of different things. Are its joints sore, or does it just feel crummy?” Crawford said.

“It’s one of those early discussions that happens when you bring in a sick dog or cat,” he said. “There is no black-and-white answer, unfortunately, at this point.”

When it comes to Lyme disease, uncertainty abounds for everybody. So wear light-colored pants (the better to spot ticks) and tuck them into your socks (to keep the beasties from sneaking up your legs), and head out to Concord on Wednesday.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.