Posted: 4:49 p.m. Thursday, May 8, 2014

2 Investigates: Doctors warn of rise in spread of Lyme disease

By John Fowler

KTVU.com

BAY AREA —

Some Bay Area doctors call Lyme disease a hidden epidemic. Once thought rare in California, Lyme disease appears to be all too common.

Its devastating symptoms can begin as long as several years after exposure. Scott Athearn believes a tick bite from more than a decade ago may have caused his stubborn health problems.

The 50-year-old developer says his neurologic symptoms and fatigue got worse and worse, but his doctors couldn’t diagnose it.

“It probably took me about five and a half, six years from when I started noticing, testing, all the way through until we said yes, it’s Lyme,” he said.

Athearn has been on antibiotics for more than four years. He says he’s  now feeling better but he’s worried about his two younger daughters who were also diagnosed with Lyme, but were never bitten by a tick.

“The doctors believe that you could possibly transmit it through conception. So it’s just  kind of ironic to have two children with Lyme and I have Lyme. How did they get it?” Athearn asked.

The Centers for Disease Control says that some patients can be unaware of having been bitten because ticks that transmit Lyme disease are extremely small. But the agency also warns that some patients may falsely test negative for the disease initially, depending on the stage of the infection.

Last year a study funded by Bay Area Lyme Foundation and the CDC’s Journal Emerging Infectious Diseases confirmed Lyme disease was discovered in every Bay Area county except San Francisco. The CDC now reports Lyme disease is likely 10 times more common than officially diagnosed.

“There are many more new cases of Lyme disease. More than almost any reportable infectious disease including HIV/AIDS,” saud Doctor John Aucott, the President of the Lyme Disease Research Foundation.

He says the fight against Lyme disease gets almost no funding.

“The diagnostic tests are not very good. The treatment is not standardized and not very effective” said San Francisco Doctor Raphael Stricker, who treats about 2,000 Lyme disease patients. He just completed a small study which is not yet published, showing an alarming way Lyme disease may be transmitted.

“It’s very likely Lyme disease is spread by direct contact from person to person,” Stricker said.

He says Lyme bacteria, the spirochetes, are similar to syphilis and could be passed from mother to child through blood transfusions or unprotected sex.

“We found that the same Lyme bacteria are in the secretions of both partners which suggests it is being passed back and forth,” Stricker argues.

Medical experts say more research is needed to confirm person to person infection. But Stricker says it could help explain today’s surge in Lyme cases.  

“I was sick or in treatment and sick for eight years,” said Kathleen O’Rourke. She and her son were diagnosed with Lyme disease, each because of a tick bite. She decided to form a group which became the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. The organization supports new research. 

Though Lyme is rarely fatal, its symptoms -- including fever, fatigue, pain and neurological problems -- can be severely debilitating.

“They realize if it impacts them, eventually it impacts me and my family more directly,” O’Rourke said. “It’s a public health problem. Let’s get it figured out!”

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