The myth that there is no Lyme disease in California was further dispelled when the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal recently published data showing that ticks carrying Lyme disease-causing bacteria are widespread in the Bay Area. This troubling misconception has been a significant barrier to important steps toward prevention, diagnosis and treatment in our community.
Most people in California don’t realize that tick season here is year-round due to our temperate climate. While tick season back East peaks in early summer, Californians need to be vigilant year-round. Baby nymphs, which are smaller than a poppy seed and very difficult to detect, carry Lyme-bacteria and emerge in spring and early summer. The somewhat-easier-to-see adult ticks are active from the fall through spring. Notably, all tick bites numb the skin, meaning that both young and adult ticks may go unnoticed.
Early diagnosis and treatment is key. Another pervasive myth of Lyme disease is related to the tell-tale rash. Many patients never get a skin rash and those that do may not get the distinctive bull’s-eye shape. Therefore it is critical that Californians also know the symptoms of Lyme’s early stages which can include headaches, flu-like ailments, joint pain, fatigue and sometimes a rash that has many different shapes, only one of which looks like a bull’s-eye.
Symptoms of Lyme disease worsen and the disease becomes increasingly difficult to treat as it progresses. People suffering from its later symptoms may wrestle for years with complications like paralysis, agonizing joint pain, nervous system problems, inflammation of the brain and inflammation of the heart.
More research needs to be done. For one, Lyme disease lacks an effective diagnostic tool. Even the gold standard diagnostic (ELISA/Western Blot) misses up to 60 percent of early-stage acute Lyme cases. This delay can make prompt treatment difficult, and can lead to the later more debilitating stages of the disease, which is far more challenging to cure. There are half a million Americans, possibly as many as a million who suffer from the debilitating later stage symptoms, according to Bay Area Lyme Foundation estimates.
We need to dispel these myths and get the word out so that everyone knows the precautions to take against Lyme disease, regularly performs “tick checks” after being outdoors, understands how to remove a tick safely and is aware of its early symptoms. Fortunately, the number of human cases is still low on the West Coast, and we need to keep it that way.
Founded by a group of Bay Area business and community leaders alarmed at the number of people in their community who had Lyme disease, Bay Area Lyme Foundation collaborates with world-class scientists and institutions nationwide to accelerate medical breakthroughs for Lyme. The organization also funds studies to document tick infection rates in California and conducts programs to communicate the importance of prevention and early treatment.
May is Lyme Disease Awareness month. This has particular importance here in the Bay Area because of the need for awareness. May is also the time when summer camps are around the corner and we tend to be outdoors more, making prevention all the more timely. So spread the word about Lyme, take steps to prevent it, know its symptoms and support research to make Lyme disease easy to diagnose and simple to cure.
Linda Giampa is the executive director Bay Area Lyme Foundation, a national nonprofit organization based in Silicon Valley dedicated to making Lyme disease easy to diagnose and simple to cure. To learn more visit www.bayarealyme.org.