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Experts warn of infection risk with high summer tick count

Carisa Thesing, an East Grand Forks resident, has suffered from Lyme Disease for the past 15 years. She feels the effects of the lingering disease and likely willl for the rest of her life. She's seen holding her dog, Bozley,a five-month old Corgi photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Carisa Thesing likes to work on her photography to cope with Lyme Disease. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Carisa Thering lives a normal life — she cares for family, takes photos in her spare time and she helps out others. But when medical professionals told her time after time she was perfectly normal and healthy, Thering knew they were wrong, as intense nerve pain and limb numbness is not normal.

Thering’s medical visits — adding up to more than 200 — to small clinics and renowned hospitals in the Midwest led to many misdiagnoses and her being told she was in the healthiest condition of her life. Nearly four years passed until Thering was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2007.

“I just got sicker, and I had doctors tell me I was crazy,” Thering said. “I thought I was dying. I didn’t know if I was living one day or dying the next day.”

Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in North Dakota, affected at least 29 people in the state in 2013 and has been rapidly spreading throughout the state over the last decade, according to North Dakota Department of Health reports. And experts say this summer will be an especially active tick season for ticks. 

Thering originally sought medical attention in 1999 after a bull’s-eye shaped rash — a symptom of Lyme disease — formed on her arm. She said her physician prescribed a cream to clear the rash up and it went away. It wasn’t until 2002 that the disease would resurface, causing lifelong symptoms and health complications, leading to chronic Lyme disease.

“I knew something was wrong, and I knew it wasn’t in my head like the (doctors) said,” Thering said.

Bad season

As the summer season gets underway, North Dakota and Minnesota epidemiologists are worried about rising black-legged tick populations — the carrier of the bacteria which causes Lyme disease — because large snowfall totals from this winter helped keep the arachnids alive.

“We anticipate that we'll have another year with fairly high tick numbers,” said Dave Neitzel, an epidemiologist specializing in tick-borne diseases for the Minnesota Department of Health said. “A lot of people think the snow killed off the ticks, but it actually insulates them and the tick sampling we’ve done have showed a lot of adult black-legged ticks.”

Neitzel said while people should always protect themselves from ticks when going outdoors, now is the prime time to take precautions as nymphs, the first stages of life for the black-legged ticks, are becoming active. Once they have bitten someone, nymphs can transmit the Lyme-causing bacteria in one to two days, whereas it takes a little longer with adult ticks Neitzel said.

“The main point to get across is we’re entering the highest time for transmission as the ticks become active, so if people want to take precaution now is the time to do it more than ever,” he said.

Thering knows the importance of taking preventative measures, as her chronic Lyme disease has left her with limited mobility, impaired speech and spurts of chronic pain.

“I lecture my kids constantly to wear tight clothing and things like that when they go outdoors,” she said.

Counting cases

The MDH reported more than 900 cases of people with confirmed and probable Lyme disease in 2012. Much of Minnesota is being monitored by the MDH for tick-borne diseases, since more than half of the 87 counties in the state have been listed as high to moderate risk for tick-borne diseases.

Polk and Norman County have been listed as high risk for tick-borne diseases. Neitzel said one of the main reasons Lyme disease has spread to North Dakota so quickly throughout the last 10 years is because people are traveling more to Minnesota where the ticks thrive in heavy woodlands and are bringing them when they return home.

The last tick surveillance conducted in North Dakota was in 2010, but Alicia Lepp, a state epidemiologist, said tick surveillance is being conducted this summer to update records.

In 2013, three cases of Lyme disease were reported in Grand Forks County, while 14 were noted in Cass County. Cass County has had some of the highest reports of Lyme disease since 2008.

Catherine Brissette, an assistant professor at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is incorporating health department tick surveillance into her post-doctorate research.

“My work has been trying to understand the bacteria and how it causes disease and long-term infection,” Brissette said. “We’re trying to understand how it interacts with its hosts.”

Trapping ticks all across the state to see what kinds of pathogens they carry, Brissette said much of the research being conducted is focused on eventually developing better therapies to combat the diseases.

“It’s a difficult bacteria to work with,” Brissette said. “There is a lot known about Lyme and the disease, but it’s much different from other bacteria.”

An improvement in Lyme disease treatments would be good news to Thering, as she said she went through 40 antibiotics before her body finally responded to the medication during her treatment period.

While maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the only thing Thering can do to manage the lingering effects of Lyme disease, she said she hopes people take action to avoid the disease.

“I eat healthy and try to take care of myself, but it’s still in me, the Lyme disease,” she said.