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Cases of Lyme disease on rise

Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times
Jesse Schons, 14, of Bethel, photographed on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, is a Ford City High School student being treated for Lyme disease after being bitten by an infected deer tick.

Thursday, May 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
 

Tracy Schons is not joking when she calls her son Jesse “a tick magnet.”

The 14-year-old spends a lot of time fishing and hiking outdoors near the family's home in Bethel, but lately has been confined to crutches because he contracted Lyme disease.

“He seems to be the tick magnet of the house,” said his mother, Tracy. “We always got them out before and watched for the bull's eye rash.”

But that early warning sign of a bullseye never came. Less than two weeks ago, his right knee suddenly became swollen, was painful and warm to the touch.

His pediatrician in Kittanning sent him to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh for tests and started him on his month-long course of antibiotics when the results showed positive.

“He's doing better — it took a while for the swelling in his leg to go down, but he's taking it all in stride,” his mom said. “But he's tired of hobbling around. He wants to throw the crutch and run.”

His mother said she hopes publicizing her son's case will help others recognize the seriousness of the problem of Lyme disease.

The disease is transmitted to animals and humans through the bite of an infected deer tick. According to literature from the state Department of Health, about 4,000 cases of the disease are reported annually in Pennsylvania.

In 1996, there were only seven reported cases in Armstrong County. By 2012, that number had increased to 136.

The tell-tale rash typically shows up in about 75 percent of cases, said Dr. Kenneth Keppel of Children's Community Pediatrics in Armstrong County.

The most common things to look for in that early stage — which can show up between three and 30 days — are symptoms of rash, fatigue and headaches. If the early stage passes without being recognized, symptoms can include loss of muscle tone in the face, meningitis or inflammation of the heart. Incidents with those symptoms remains low and appear in less than 10 percent of cases, Keppel said.

The late phase of the disease, which can show up months after a bite, can cause arthritis and painful swelling of joints.

Frequency of cases has increased significantly in the county in the last 10 years, Keppel said. A decade ago, only a small percentage of deer ticks carried Lyme disease. Now, up to 90 percent of the deer tick population are infected.

“We are in an endemic area because of the number of ticks that carry Lyme disease,” Keppel said. “But the good news is it's very treatable, even at the later stage.

“There's this notion that there's a chronic phase of this disease that exists — this has not been proven.”

People should bathe and check themselves for ticks after being in grassy or wooded areas where the bugs are likely to live to reduce chances of being infected by Lyme disease.

“A tick would need to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit the disease,” he said. “If you find a tick crawling around, it's not likely to be a problem.”

If a tick has been attached for more than 36 hours, a doctor should be notified to provide a single dose of antibiotic as a preventative measure. If you find a tick attached to you, remove them gently as close to the skin as possible, then treat the spot with alcohol.

“You want them to release,” Keppel said. “It can take a while. They won't let go right away.”

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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