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Looking for signs of Lyme disease: An interview with Cynthia Morrow

John Tann

Lyme disease is on the rise in many parts of the country -- including right here in central and northern New York. But what is this disease and how does it spread?

Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show, "Take Care," spoke with Onondaga County Health Commissioner Dr. Cynthia Morrow about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease.

Lorraine Rapp: How concerned should we be?

Dr. Morrow: Well, unfortunately Lyme disease is a really tricky disease. It is treatable, but it is a difficult disease. And the reality is, in central New York we did not have Lyme disease 10 years ago, but unfortunately now it is a part of our ecology now and it’s here to stay.

Lorraine Rapp: What exactly is Lyme disease? How is it transmitted?

Dr. Morrow: Lyme disease is a bacterial infection. And what happens is, field mice are the primary reservoir for Lyme disease. Ticks get infected through the field mice, and then they in turn infect deer, dogs, cats and us. And for people, what happens is we get infected after getting bitten by a tick. Typically the first symptoms are flu-like symptoms. We hear that all the time. But then, classically what will happen, in about 80 percent of the people who are infected, they will develop a rash, a very specific bulls-eye lesion. And it’s really critical that people one, take the steps to prevent Lyme disease, and two, if they do get Lyme disease, get seen immediately for antibiotics.

Lorraine Rapp: Can a dog bring in a tick that hasn’t really fastened into their skin and can it casually fall off somewhere in your house and just crawl over to a human being?

Dr. Morrow: Oh, yes. We have a dog and our dog has been infected as well even though we use the medications and we certainly support people protecting themselves and protecting their animals. And if a tick doesn’t attach and is crawling around your house it can certainly find you. You know, we don’t think that’s a huge risk. The biggest risk is going our hiking, going out in long grass, spending a lot of time outdoors…

Lorraine Rapp: Would you say that part of the increase is that we’re seeing them [ticks] more and more in other settings.

Dr. Morrow: Well, it’s hard for me to say that because we just don’t have good data to support that. We do know that the state health department does tick sweeps in certain parts, in high risk areas, but anecdotally we know that people are reporting that they’ve gotten tickets within their yard. Again, I don’t have good data to support that but it makes sense. There are ticks everywhere and, yes, there’s a higher risk in the traditional wooded, grassy areas, but they can get into yards. Now, there are a lot of things that people can do to prevent Lyme disease. So there are things that they can do to themselves: they can wear long pants, tuck them in, wear tick repellent when you’re going out in high risk areas, take a shower- so that if there are any ticks they can actually wash off before they’re embedded. And then, of course, do a tick check.

Linda Lowen: What is the current treatment for Lyme disease?

Dr. Morrow: The current treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics and, of course, individuals should talk with their providers about which is the best antibiotic for them. But it is a treatment, it’s an antibiotic course. Depending on when it’s diagnosed the length of treatment may vary. But they should really talk to their providers and again the critical thing is to try to prevent it, but if you have symptoms: fever, headache, body aches and the of course that rash in the beginning- you must see a physician and get on those antibiotics.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show, Sunday at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.