Minnesotans can never be complacent when it comes to Lyme disease. Just when you think it’s safe, round two of tick season appears. That would be the fall months when there’s an uptick in tick bites.
The state Department of Health notes that cooler temperatures bring adult ticks back out, creating a second peak of tick activity along with reminders about prevention.
Blacklegged ticks, of course, are the tiny buggers that carry Lyme disease.
Not every blacklegged (also known as deer) tick is infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi that causes Lyme, but the incidence is rising exponentially. The trouble is many Lyme sufferers don’t know when or how they were infected.
One of those people is Blanche Hawkins, a Dellwood resident who suspects she became infected from a tick bite a decade ago.
Hawkins has been researching and searching for creative Lyme treatments for years. It’s a complicated issue, compounded by other health issues, she said, that can make it difficult to measure success.
Blind in one eye, Hawkins has balance problems unrelated to Lyme’s. She suffered a severe head injury several years ago after she fainted, hitting the back of her head. Her doctors feel the reason she fainted so easily is because she has Lyme’s disease.
With the urging of her daughter, an Iowa chiropractor who also has Lyme’s disease, Hawkins is undergoing what she calls “brain training” at a St. Louis Park clinic. “It’s something developed by the Carrick Institute. They are using eye exercises to help train my brain so I am not falling forward all the time. It’s working for me.”
The neuropathy symptoms she noticed a decade ago are a marker for Lyme disease, Hawkins said. “I was never sick or had a rash. I had balance issues.”
Her Lyme doctor is Dr. Christopher Foley, a Vadnais Heights physician who started Minnesota Natural Medicine in 2001. He reported the first case of Lyme disease in Minnesota in 1981, according to his website. A partner at the clinic, Jonathan Otten, is a naturopathic practitioner who wrote in the North Oaks News (a sister publication) that Lyme disease that is not diagnosed and treated early may advance into a much more insidious disease that can be difficult to treat.
“Lyme disease that is left untreated or improperly treated may progress and affect essentially every system in the body, but particularly has an affinity for the central nervous system,” Otten said. “In this Lyme-endemic region, we must always consider tick-borne disease.”
Many patients are told that Lyme is not contributing to their symptoms because of a very poor test, noted Otten. Their clinic is using a diagnostic tool called Borrelia culture provided by Advanced Laboratory Services. It has a sensitivity of 94 percent and has been proven useful in the diagnosis of Lyme that is undetectable by routine serological tests. Hawkins finally got a positive diagnosis last fall.
A passion for gardening compels the Dellwood woman to take precautions outdoors. She wears clothing treated with permethrin and when she comes back inside, she immediately takes a bath and scrubs away every speck that could be a tick.
Hawkins also takes an herbal treatment, something her daughter recommends, called the Cowden Protocol. It’s named after a physician named Wm. Lee Cowden who developed the alternative therapy for treatment of Lyme’s disease, and is pricey.
Her energy level has improved, Hawkins said, “but I don’t know if it’s the Lyme protocol or because I’m not so dizzy. Many symptoms of Lyme are also symptoms of a head injury, so it’s made it more complicated for me.”
An advocate for social change, Hawkins is not shy about knocking on legislator’s doors when it comes to tick-borne illnesses. In fact, she spent 25 years trying to get women elected to higher office through a group called Women Winning Now. She is not as active due to her health but Hawkins did meet with Rep. Betty McCollum earlier this summer to discuss the Lyme epidemic.
“Betty is aware of it but skeptical about getting funding for public awareness. I asked her to at least put signs at park entrances warning hikers to stay on the trails because of ticks,” Hawkins noted. “She wasn’t very encouraging, which I expected. We need to put more pressure on these people.”
Something she’d like to see locally is a deer culling program in Dellwood similar to North Oaks.
The City Council in North Oaks formed a Tick Task Force to deal with the threat of tick-borne disease. The committee partially blames the deer population for Lyme disease incidence rates they say are higher in North Oaks than Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Lake. Deer management is one part of their approach to tick control.
Deer don’t carry the actual disease but provide a means for ticks to mate and a blood meal for the female. Ticks pick up the bacteria that causes Lyme disease from small mammals like mice and chipmunks.
An epidemiologist with the Department of Health, Dave Neitzel, said deer produce antibodies that protect them from Lyme infection. “A resurgence in the whitetail deer population does mean a resurgence in their parasites but it’s impossible to eliminate all the deer, and in many studies you just see the other deer with a lot more ticks on them,” he said. “If parasites don’t have deer to feed on, they will be on other mammals, including people.”
Hawkins added that newspaper publicity is not something she relishes.
“I am a private person,” she said. “I’m doing this because I want people to understand about Lyme disease. Dozens of my friends have gotten Lyme disease.”