When Avril Lavigne appeared last month at the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics, she looked and sounded great.
The 30-year-old Canadian singer made a triumphant return to the stage after nearly a year’s absence from performing. You’d never have suspected that, since fall 2014, she’d been fighting a debilitating battle with Lyme disease.
She went public with her diagnosis in April, and in June became emotional during a “Good Morning America” interview while explaining how frustrating it had been to see doctor after doctor — with none of them properly diagnosing the disease that had left her bedridden and thinking she was dying.
“This is what they do to a lot of people who have Lyme disease,” she said. “They don’t have an answer for them so they tell them, like, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Lavigne’s not the only public figure who’s been talking — and becoming emotional — about her struggles with this mysterious tick-borne illness.
“Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” cast member Yolanda Foster, the wife of Grammy Award-winning musician David Foster, also has made no secret of her years-long battle with Lyme.
During a taping of a “Real Housewives” reunion show, she became so weakened, she was forced to leave the stage mid-segment.
And last week, the Miami New Times reported that another reality show cast member — Ariel Stein from “Miami Social” — was “desperately sick with late-stage Lyme disease.”
Lavigne, Foster and Stein are just three of the estimated hundreds of thousands of Americans who are struggling to overcome a disease that has both baffled and divided the medical community.
Transmission, symptoms and treatment
Lyme disease, which is transmitted via the bite of a tick infected with the spirochetes bacterium Borrelia Burgdorferi, is often called “the great imitator” because so many of its initial symptoms — headaches, fatigue, fever, rashes — can be mistaken for other ailments.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are some 300,000 new infections annually — with tens of thousands going mis-/un-diagnosed.
The most widely known early symptom — the so-called “bull’s-eye rash” — is considered a telltale sign that a patient has Lyme disease. When patients have this kind of rash, public health officials have long instructed doctors to prescribe a regimen of antibiotics — and to have the patients undergo a battery of blood tests to determine the presence of certain antibodies.
Not all doctors do this.
And even when they do, inaccurate diagnostics abound.
As New Yorker magazine reported in 2013, “It takes weeks, and sometimes longer, for blood tests to detect antibodies; a test taken too soon will produce negative results. Even then, many people who become infected will test negative in error, while others who aren’t infected will test positive.”
Oh, and to further confound doctors and patients: Researchers have found evidence that suggests even when patients are aggressively treated and test bacteria-free, they still may experience illnesses and pain related to the original infection.
Among the late-stage symptoms of Lyme disease that can be present months or even years after the initial transmission:
- Painful joints/arthritis
- Heart palpitations
- Intermittent amnesia
And lest you think only those in the northeast are at risk for Lyme disease, think again.
Not only does the CDC rank Florida in the top 20 states reporting cases of Lyme disease, but the Florida Lyme Disease Association notes, “People are at risk for Lyme disease in Florida year-round.”
So, what can you do to decrease your vulnerability?
The CDC recommends the following:
- Use repellents containing 20 percent or more DEET on your exposed skin and clothing
- Shower within two hours of being outdoors
- Check daily for ticks on your body — and on pets
- Remove any ticks immediately with tweezers; ticks need more than 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease and related infections
Of course, no matter how vigilant you are, the fact remains that, as tick-borne disease specialist Dr. Erica Lehman told People magazine, “Lyme disease is the fastest-growing epidemic in the world.”