Lyme disease, deer ticks no longer rare in Kentucky

Author's deer tick infection, which led to Lyme disease.
Author's deer tick infection, which led to Lyme disease.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that Lyme disease is already a problem in Kentucky and has been for many years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and, therefore, the medical community at large, has stubbornly, at least until recently, refused to acknowledge a growing epidemic that is spread by the so-called deer tick.

Contrary to the statement in the article that the deer tick is rarely seen in Kentucky and that it is primarily confined to the Daniel Boone National Forest, this insect has infested Kentucky from west to east, originally, many believe, when deer from the northeastern United States were brought into the Land Between the Lakes, a 170,000-acre wilderness area in Western Kentucky.

During August 2006, I suddenly experienced a fever of more than 104 degrees that rapidly oscillated from almost unbearable perspiring heat to trembling chills to which no blanket could bring comfort. No aches, no pains, no sneezing, no coughing — nothing except a fever that I can only describe as horrifically violent, coupled with debilitating, unrelenting fatigue.

Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I can remember picking the brown, flat (except when engorged with blood) ticks off my dogs and sometimes off myself. When I moved to Western Kentucky as an adult, my dogs continued to collect those ticks. But when my family and I started regularly camping in the Land Between the Lakes in the 1980s, we quickly discovered that there was a new parasite in the woods: a round, black tick, much smaller than the dog ticks. Similar in size to a sesame seed, it was much more difficult to detect. And much more dangerous. A special insect repellent, which contained a highly toxic chemical, was available only in the lake area.

Wild turkeys were also reintroduced to the area, and it wasn't long before turkey hunters began to contract an infestation dubbed "turkey mites." Turkey mites appear similar to the common chigger, except on massive doses of steroids. It can take a month or more to rid oneself of them, and all the while the victim is suffering itching akin to poison ivy, poison oak, chiggers, and hives — all at once. It is truly a miserable condition.

Turkey mites are the larvae stage of the deer tick. And they were commonly found in the forest, not deep in the woods. I didn't know that until I became infested with them, and subsequently with Lyme disease. I got them by stepping only a few yards off a paved walking trail connecting Central City and Greenville in Muhlenberg County — even though I took a shower within an hour of that trek.

When I came down with Lyme disease, the almost unbearable symptoms persisted after two or three days of a regimen of general antibiotics, my doctor admitted me to the hospital where I was in isolation.

Lyme disease causes the body's white blood cells to dwindle to dangerously low levels, making the patient extremely susceptible to any other disease. Six extremely miserable days later, I was finally released.

There were over a half dozen confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Muhlenberg County alone that summer, with at least one victim hospitalized during the same time I was confined there.

It is virtually impossible to confirm the presence of Lyme disease at its outset. It does not immediately invoke production of antibodies. It mimics the victim's own cells, so the patient's immune system does not immediately recognize it as a threat. No Lyme disease antibodies show up for six weeks or more. The only way to initially diagnose it is from symptoms that mimic a wide range of other illnesses, including flu, multiple sclerosis, ALS and lupus.

The ignorance and misconceptions about Lyme disease also can impact its victims in other ways. Because of the difficulty in confirming the presence of Lyme disease, my private temporary-disability insurance carrier balked at my claim. "Lyme hasn't been confirmed, and it's not present where you live," the insurer argued. Tests eventually determined I had been exposed to two separate strains of Lyme disease, which may never go away.

Oh, don't worry about shaking hands with me. The disease cannot be communicated from person to person, only through the carrier parasite.

A vaccine was developed in the late 1990s, but is no longer available. It was removed from the market due to poor demand. I sure wish I had been inoculated.