By NIKKI YOUNK
IRON MOUNTAIN - Spring has finally sprung in the Upper Peninsula, but the warmer weather unfortunately brings certain hazards along with it. One such danger is the rise in disease-spreading ticks.
Nikki Younk/Daily News Photo
A panel of experts answer questions during a public forum on Lyme disease Tuesday in Iron Mountain. Pictured are, from left, Dr. Jim Nicolas of the Iron Mountain Animal Hospital, microbiologist Tom Grier, and family nurse practitioner Rebecca Keith.
In order to educate the public about ticks and Lyme disease, Wildlife Unlimited of Dickinson County held a public forum on the issue at Bay West in Iron Mountain on Tuesday. Dick Sherwood of Wildlife Unlimited felt that it was a pertinent topic, as so many area residents frequent the outdoors for work and play.
A panel of experts, including microbiologist Tom Grier, family nurse practitioner Rebecca Keith, and Dr. Jim Nicolas of the Iron Mountain Animal Hospital, were on hand to address a packed crowd at Fornetti Hall.
Dr. Nicolas confirmed that the ticks that cause Lyme disease are indeed in Dickinson County.
He said that he started seeing infections in dogs from the Florence County area in the early 2000s. By the mid-2000s, dogs along the Menominee River border between Wisconsin and Michigan were getting infected.
Over the past several years, Dr. Nicolas has seen infections move to the north through Iron County and to the east through Dickinson County.
Not only is the infection area spreading, but more dogs are getting infected each year.
Dr. Nicolas reported that he treated 33 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in dogs in 2008. In 2013, he treated 140 cases.
"If we're seeing it increase in the dog population, we (humans) can't be too far behind," he said.
Grier explained that Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted from ticks to humans through bites. Ticks can travel on deer, mice, small rodents, and birds. As they can detect heat and carbon dioxide, ticks are more likely to come into contact with humans on cool, moist days.
Once in the human body, the bacteria attaches to blood vessels and can move into organs. The bacteria can then cause serious health problems to the joints, heart, and even the brain.
According to Grier, current blood tests for Lyme disease are often not conclusive. He cited studies that show tests can miss Lyme disease well over half of the time.
"I'm just saying that reliance on the blood test is not a good thing," he said.
Keith pointed out that symptoms of Lyme disease may include flu-like symptoms, joint pain, headaches, and fatigue. The well-known "bullseye" skin rash is not always present, she added.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that people can be infected with Lyme disease and other bacteria at the same time.
"Typically, you not only see Lyme, you see other pathogens from ticks," said Keith.
Other pathogens may include the bacteria bartonella, babesia, ehrlichia, anaplasma, mycoplasma, and those that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Keith noted that Lyme disease patients who do not improve with treatment may also be suffering from one of these co-infections.
Lyme disease and the co-infections can all be treated with antibiotics. Treatment will generally help patients function better, said Keith, but it does not necessarily eradicate the bacteria.
The experts could all agree that prevention is better than treatment.
Grier recommended that anyone who goes out into the woods should treat their clothes with the chemical permethrin. One treatment can last up to a month. The chemical is not for use on skin, and can be toxic to cats.
Residents can also protect themselves by wearing light clothing, long sleeves and pant legs, and socks pulled up.
Furthermore, Grier felt that residents should be educated about common misconceptions regarding ticks and Lyme disease. For example, he said that: ticks that cause Lyme disease can be found all over the northern hemisphere, not just in certain areas of the country; infections can occur year-round, not just in the spring; the Lyme disease bacteria can in fact pass from a mother to her developing fetus.
Grier claimed that the medical community has been slow to accept the changes.
"You never hear anyone come out and say 'We were wrong,'" he said. "It's putting people's lives at risk."
In addition, Grier believed that since multiple sclerosis (MS) and Lyme disease can share symptoms, doctors should be open to having their MS patients try antibiotic treatments.
Keith, while responding to an audience question, added that there could be a link between Lyme disease and autism. She said that states with the highest number of Lyme disease infections also have higher rates of autism.
Nikki Younk's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.