By Cathleen Ann Steg
Avoid the widespread danger of Lyme disease with preventive techniques, regular body checks for ticks, and recognition of symptoms.
You've taught your Scouts and Venturers how to avoid bears, bees, snakes, and skunks. But don't hit the trail until you inform them about one of the most dangerous foes in the forestthe deer tick.
Often smaller than a sesame seed, frequently mistaken for a freckle, this tiny, black-legged arachnid is more likely to attack your Scouts than any snake or varmint. Without proper education and preparedness, the result could be a case of Lyme disease (LD), an infectious disease caused by a bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) transmitted into the body when a deer tick attaches to the skin for a blood meal.
The deer tick serves as a vector for the bacteria, which lives inside the tick's gut without harming the tick, allowing it to be transferred from one hosta deer mouse, for exampleto anotheryou.
Ticks need one blood meal for each phase of their life cycle: larva, nymph, and adult. The majority of infections occur in spring and early summer, when the nymphs are prevalent. A victim often doesn't notice the tiny tick or imagines it to be a speck of dirt or a freckle.
Adult ticks feed in autumn and even early winter. But because they are larger and easier to spot, fewer adult ticks manage to stay attached to a person long enough to cause trouble.
Signs and symptoms
A so-called "bull's-eye rash," an expanding rash with a clearing area in the center, is noticed by a majority of LD sufferers. This rash, known as erythema migrans (reddish migrating rash) or EM, is the single clearest clinical indicator of LD. It's likely to happen any time from one day to one month after the bite.
Some people, however, either never get the rash or never spot it (ticks love to bite in hard-to-see areas); for these people, more subtle signs hint that trouble is brewing. These indicators may not show up for weeks or months after the bite, long after the victim has forgotten all about his hike in tick country.
The bacteria attacks so many different systems in the body that it has been challenging for physicians to diagnose the disease, particularly in areas where it is not endemic.
Signs and symptoms can be as widespread as numbness and pain in arms or legs, feelings of arthritis, paralysis of facial muscles (usually on one side of the face), swollen lymph nodes, fever, flu-like symptoms, stiff neck, severe headache, problems with concentration and memory, nervous system problems and, rarely, even an abnormal heart rate.
Reported LD cases have nearly doubled over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Almost 18,000 cases were reported in 2000, and according to Lyme Disease Foundation statistics, the total could be more than 15 times that numberexceeding 250,000if the estimated unreported cases were included.
"The main reasons for the increase in Lyme disease is a combination of more ticks near humans and a better recognition of symptoms," explains Dr. David Yoho of the Infectious Disease Consultants in Fairfax, Va.
"The heavy pressure of residential development has caused a lot more contact between the deer population and humans," he said. "There's also been a great increase in reporting, as more doctors are looking for the symptoms now that we know Lyme disease is out there."
In hardest-hit parts of the country, such as the Eastern Seaboard from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake Bay, and the north-central states, diagnosis has become increasingly streamlined, something that is advantageous to a victim of a tick bite in these regions.
Fear of the disease doesn't mean you have to call off all outdoor hiking and camping, limiting your Scouts to safe, suburban activities. In fact, unless you switch to indoor mall-walking, you can't completely avoid all ticks. Tick-borne infectious diseases are transmitted at backyard barbecues, playgrounds, and Saturday morning lawn mowings, as well as in the thickets along Chesapeake Bay.
Education, prevention, and prompt attention to signs and symptoms are the only solution. By teaching proper methods to the adults and youth in your pack, troop, or crew, you should be able to enjoy the outdoors with confidence.
According to Chris Malinowski, communications director of the Lyme Disease Foundation, Scout and Venturer leaders should take these three steps before an outing:
Knowing the proper tick-removal technique is also important. Scout leaders should have tweezers, alcohol swabs (to disinfect the tweezers and bite site) and a vial to save the tick for identification and possible testing for Lyme or other tick-borne disorders.
"These often debilitating diseases are increasing in prevalence and spreading geographically across the country," Malinowski notes.
Proper attention to educating all your members about prevention techniques can make a great difference in the health of the troop, crew, or pack.
Scouting magazine contributing editor Cathleen Ann Steg's experience with Lyme disease includes her own battle with the debilitating illness.
September 2003 Table of Contents
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