What makes Lyme tick?

Lyme disease is a mysterious chameleon of an illness. For some people, it is no worse than getting the flu, and after being treated with antibiotics, it disappears.

But for others, Lyme is much more serious and even after treatment there can be ongoing symptoms, such as extreme fatigue, muscle aches, paralysis, Bell’s palsy, and memory loss. In extreme cases, there can also be permanent damage to the joints or nervous system.

To get a better understanding about this tickborne disease, there are currently two research programs going on in the area, each focusing on a different aspect of Lyme disease.

At Western Connecticut State University, a Bait Box Intervention (BBI) study is underway to study ticks and determine if treating backyard mice with an insecticide can reduce the number of human cases of Lyme disease.

At Danbury Hospital, the Western Connecticut Lyme Disease Registry is compiling an information database from people who have had Lyme disease, with the goal of improving Lyme diagnosis and treatment.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease was first recognized in 1975, in Old Lyme, Connecticut. It is an illness caused by bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged or deer ticks.

Ticks get the bacteria from white-footed mice, other rodents, and some birds. In their nymphal stage, the ticks are about the size of a poppy seed or the period at the end of a sentence.

The ticks can be found in grassy and wooded areas where they are waiting for warm bodies to grasp onto. They do not jump, fly, or fall out of trees. The ticks are generally picked up on the lower legs and crawl up the body. A tick bite is usually painless, and most people are unaware they’ve been bitten.

Statistics show that most people become infected with Lyme disease during the months of May through July, when nymphs are searching for a meal, according to the Connecticut Department of Health (DPH).

Abundant snow and a wet spring have created an “ideal condition” for ticks to come out in Weston, according to David Brant, executive director of the Aspetuck Land Trust. He advises people walking through the woods and land trust properties to cover their legs and feet, and stay on marked trails.

According to the DPH, the incidence of Lyme disease is due to a number of factors, including:

  • Tick abundance
  • Deer population
  • Recognition of the disease
  • Residence in a wooded area
  • Potential for contact with ticks
  • Physician reporting of disease

In 2013, there were 2,918 cases of confirmed or probable Lyme disease reported in Connecticut. Of those, 442 cases were reported in Fairfield County, with 10 cases reported in Weston. Many cases go unreported.

Bait Box Study

The BBI Bait Box Intervention study, focusing on ticks, is currently being conducted at 100 homes in five area communities including Weston, according to Monica Wheeler, community health director with the Westport Weston Health District.

The Pross family of Weston is participating in the study, which is being administered by the Connecticut Emerging Infections Program, the DPH, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study involves luring mice to a “bait box” on the property which contains a small amount of Fibronil pesticide. The pesticide kills ticks but is not harmful to the mice. The goal is to see if the bait boxes are effective as a tick control measure in reducing Lyme disease.

The study has significant meaning to the Prosses, because their son Greg Pross was first diagnosed with Lyme in the summer of 2000, when he was 11. He took oral antibiotics as prescribed by his doctors. But then Lyme struck again several years later and he was sick all of his junior and senior years at Weston High School.

In 2008, for his Eagle Scout project, as a member of Weston Boy Scout Troop 788, Greg installed tick habitat signs in public spaces around Weston, to warn residents where ticks could be found.

Fast forward to 2014, and Greg has just completed his course work in computer science at Sacred Heart University. What is usually a four-year degree, took him seven years to complete because he was so fatigued from the ongoing symptoms of Lyme disease that he could only handle college on a part-time basis.

“Lyme zapped all Greg’s energy, but Scared Heart was very accommodating,” said Dave Pross, Greg’s dad.

Lyme registry

At Danbury Hospital, the Western Connecticut Health Network Lyme Disease Registry was formed to create a database about Lyme disease for medical research purposes.

The registry was started by a grant from Laura and Dale Kutnick of Ridgefield, whose child suffered severe chronic conditions from Lyme disease.

The goal of the registry is to help with the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme.

As part of the registry process, people who have had Lyme disease are asked to explain how they have been affected, and provide details about any persistent symptoms they have.

Amber Butler, the registry’s research associate, said the more people that respond to the registry, the better, because it will show the complicated nature of Lyme disease, and how people can be affected years after being diagnosed with it. “There has been a lack of research and information about Lyme, so the goal is to try to get a better understanding about it,” she said.

To participate in the Lyme disease registry, go the Lyme registry link on danburyhospital.org.