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Ticks now spreading a rare disease even scarier than Lyme

TODAY logo TODAY 6 days ago Linda Carroll

Deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, on a fingertip © Getty Images stock Deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, on a fingertip The anaplasmosis bacteria are carried by the same tick that spreads Lyme disease.

At first Jeffrey Diamond assumed that his chills, headache and shortness of breath were signs of another bout of bronchitis. But soon his headache and fever worsened and Diamond, 67, started to feel disoriented and foggy.

"I had the worst headache I'd ever had and I was feeling really wiped out," the Richmond, Massachusetts author remembered. "It all came on so quickly and I felt so terrible, I decided waiting another 24 hours might not be smart."

Diamond's wife took him to the emergency room where a battery of tests all came up negative. Doctors sent him back home where his symptoms worsened even further.

The next day, fearful that she might lose her husband, Diamond's wife took him to their primary care physician who guessed he might be suffering from a relatively rare tick-borne disease, anaplasmosis. She immediately started him on the antibiotic doxycycline which probably saved his life.

Jeffrey Diamond © Courtesy of Jeffrey Diamond. Jeffrey Diamond With the wet and warm weather that has persisted into this fall, anaplasmosis cases are on the rise, said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. The anaplasmosis bacteria are carried by the same tick that spreads Lyme disease, Morse explained, "So when you see an increase in Lyme disease, you'll see an increase in the other tick-borne diseases, like anaplasmosis."

The increase in cases isn't just due to the hot, wet summer, according to Dr. Paige Armstrong, a medical epidemiologist at the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia. Anaplasmosis cases have been on the rise for the past several years. In 2014 the CDC received reports of 2,008 cases and in 2015, the number had risen to 3,656. "That's a 31 percent increase," Armstrong said.

And that's probably an underestimate of how many there actually were, Armstrong said. Even so, anaplasmosis cases are a fraction of what you see with Lyme. Compared to the 3,656 anaplasmosis cases in 2015, there were 28,453 reports of Lyme disease.

The scary thing about anaplasmosis is that it can result in death in about 1 percent of cases, according to the CDC. Most at risk for severe outcomes are people over 60 and those who don't get treatment quickly, Armstrong explained. Still, it's not as deadly as certain other tick-borne diseases, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichiosis, she says.

Unfortunately there's no hallmark symptom like Lyme's bull's-eye rash. But people who live in areas where the black-legged tick is endemic and who spend time outdoors should be alert to symptoms, which according to the CDC can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Malaise
  • Chills
  • Nausea/abdominal pain
  • Cough
  • Confusion

Very rarely people with anaplasmosis develop a rash, Armstrong said.

You should be suspicious if you develop a flu-like illness after being in a tick-infested area, Morse said.

The only way to protect yourself against the disease is to avoid being bitten by a tick. When you're in tick-infested areas, "You take the same precautions you take for Lyme," Morse said. "Try to make yourself as unappealing and inhospitable to ticks as possible. Wear long sleeves and long pants with the cuffs tucked into your socks so nothing can crawl up your leg. Use a repellent with DEET."

Armstrong suggests taking a shower once you come back inside and then having someone inspect all the nooks and crannies of your body where ticks like to hide, like your scalp, ears, groin and behind the knees.

You also need to be aware that your pets, if they spend time outside, could be bringing ticks into the house, Armstrong said. "Make sure they're brought to the vet and you're using appropriate repellents," she added.

The standard therapy for anaplasmosis is doxycycline, which is generally started if there is a suspicion that you've been infected with the bacteria. Since severe symptoms are more likely to occur if the disease isn't treated right away, doctors generally don't wait for test results to come back before prescribing the antibiotic, Armstrong said.

By the time Diamond started on his course of antibiotics, his health had drastically declined. His kidneys were starting to fail and this time, with a referral from his doctor, he got admitted to the hospital.

Diamond still suffers symptoms months after being diagnosed and treated for the disease. "I still have issues with my joints and hands and shoulders," he says. "And I'm still extremely tired. I sleep almost every afternoon."

Hoping to warn others, he described his ordeal in two columns published in the Massachusetts local paper The Berkshire Eagle: "My tick bite nightmare," Part 1 and Part 2.

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