LEWISTOWN - Michelle Naylor, of Lewistown, has been going from doctor to doctor over the last year seeking a diagnosis for a seemingly unidentifiable illness. Symptoms of pain, fatigue, fever, numbness and swollen glands could indicate multiple diseases, the doctors told her. Now, a year later, Naylor is suffering from Lyme disease which, without early treatment, causes her daily pain, weakness, memory loss, dizziness and nausea.
"I had mentioned the prevalence of ticks in our area to the doctors, but Michelle didn't remember getting bit by a tick," said Joyce Wilson, Naylor's mother. "Now she's unable to work and care for her children. Without the help of family and friends she could have lost her home."
Lyme disease is an infection caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, transmitted through the bite of an infected deer tick. With the potential to go completely undetected, Lyme disease has become an increasingly common issue in Pennsylvania.
According to lymediseaseassociation.net, the Center for Disease Control has received more than 60,000 in-state reports of Lyme disease over the last 10 years, ranking Pennsylvania number two in the nation, following New York.
Pennsylvania has reported 3,346 instances of Lyme disease so far in 2012, compared to the 2,933 instances reported by this time last year, said Kristen Nordlund, CDC representative. There have been 67 reports this week alone, she said.
Linda Olley, founder and president of the Harrisburg Area Lyme Disease Support Group, said the Lyme disease epidemic in Pennsylvanian is often underreported, misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all due to CDC guidelines that patients don't always meet.
"Our state has led the nation in reported Lyme cases since 2010," Olley said. "2012 is expected to be even worse."
Dr. Edward Bzik, medical director of the emergency department at Lewistown Hospital, said he has seen more patients infected with Lyme disease this year than any previous year.
"I have personally treated three patients with severe symptoms of Lyme disease over the last month," Bzik said. "The symptoms vary so significantly that it's a difficult infection to diagnose. Since we have been seeing an increase, the doctors at the E.R. are erring on the side of caution, recommending antibiotics even before tests come back."
The most obvious indicator is a localized skin rash at the site of the tick bite, Bzik said. It normally appears a few days after the bite, taking on a bulls-eye formation with a gradual circular reddening and a clearing around the bite.
"If you see such a rash on your body, you should see a physician immediately to begin treatment," Bzik said.
However, studies show that less than half of infected individuals actually get a rash, Olley said. The most common symptom is a flu-like illness with fatigue, body aches and fever, she added.
In an effort to educate Pennsylvania government, doctors and residents, LymeActionPA, an advocacy and support group focused on legislative reform in the state, worked with Sen. Stewart Greenleaf to introduce Senate Bill 210, referred to as The Lyme and Other Related Diseases Education, Treatment and Prevention Act, in 2011. The Pennsylvania Senate could vote on the act as early as this fall.
If passed, SB210 would create a task force designed to study and implement important steps in preventing and fighting Lyme disease in Pennsylvania, increasing awareness for medical professionals and the general public. It would also set up surveillance of tick populations to identify high-risk areas and provide better prevention strategies.
A companion bill, HB 272, includes provisions allowing physicians to prescribe longer courses of antibiotics, without fear of professional or insurance repercussions, if they feel it is the appropriate medical decision.
"We need to rally together to have our doctors (and community educated) on the symptoms, diagnoses and treatment for Lyme disease," Wilson said.