by Audrey Thomasson
MORATTICO—From mid-May to mid-July, young undeveloped ticks are most active. They are so small, most people can’t feel them and their bite is difficult to detect.
Combined with the complexity of tick-borne diseases and doctors who don’t recognize the illness, far too many people are diagnosed well beyond the window where treatments have a higher cure rate.
Ticks, as well as fleas and mosquitos, can carry many bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoans all at the same time and transmit them in a single bite. The most common include Lyme disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, relapsing fever, tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Diseases acquired together are called co-infections and generally result in more severe symptoms, longer recovery and more severe illness.
For 20 years, Morattico resident V Ross Johnson has fought the debilitating effects of co-infections transmitted by a tick in 2002, when she found the bullseye mark of a tick bite. The disease didn’t manifest itself until her immune system was weakened with pneumonia four years later. She chronicled her experiences battling chronic tick-borne illness in a presentation to some 45 people gathered at the Morattico Waterfront Museum Pavillon on May 27.
“I am a Lyme warrior of 20 years,” Johnson announced.
Friends and neighbors heard how she went from a very active lifestyle that included flying lessons and exploring every continent, including Antartica, to extreme exhaustion that resulted in sleeping for days at a time, muscles too weak to walk, and large welt-like rashes.
“Lyme kills. We need to find a way to get rid of ticks,” she said.
Early symptoms of Lyme disease can present like the flu: chills, fever, headache, fatigue, stiff neck, sore throat, swollen glands, rash and muscle and/or joint pain and cramps. The health department warns that if left untreated, it can lead to complications, such as meningitis, facial palsy, arthritis and heart abnormalities.
Lyme is a bacteria that drills into tissue, allowing it to infect any area of the body, according to information from the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS).
The society also notes that in recent years, cases of the co-infectious diseases are rising, possibly as a result of increased testing and the spreading of stealth pathogens that are hard-wired to hide in the body, causing damage wherever they lurk and evading antibiotic treatments. Other diseases are passed along by ticks and often missed in diagnosing Lyme. One such disease, babesiosis, is caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells. Anaplasmosis is the result of bacteria that infect and mutate white blood cells.
Johnson recommended infected victims insist on long, aggressive courses of antibiotic treatments over six weeks and seek solutions in alternative medicine such as herbal medicine and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which provides inhalation of 100% oxygen in a total body chamber under increased atmospheric pressure.
“I had 140 dives in 18 weeks” to rid the body of toxins at a clinic in Reston, said Johnson. It was the second time she had undergone hyperbaric chamber treatments in her war against the disease. A simple cold had weakened her immune system enough to allow the disease to reemerge and ravage her body.
While she’s recovered enough to demonstrate the ability to skip across the floor—and be rewarded with the applause of friends and neighbors—she admits the disease impaired some brain function and memory.
Of course, preventing the tick bite is the first defense against the diseases. ILADS recommends wearing light clothing to better spot ticks. Also, wearing long sleeves and pants, and tucking pant legs into socks. Spray permethrin (sold under the brand name Nix) on clothing—but not on skin—to kill ticks on contact. Use insect repellent with 20% DEET and do frequent checks for ticks on you, your kids and pets.
Heat kills ticks, so throw clothing into the dryer for 5 to 10 minutes when coming indoors.
Reduce ticks around the house by removing leaf litter and keeping the grass short. And stay out of thick brush and tall grass.
In the event of a bite, removing a tick that has been embedded in one’s skin for less than 24 hours greatly reduces the changes of being infected, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Johnson noted there is only one recommended safe way to remove a tick and that is by grabbing it at the skin line with a pair of tweezers. ILADS warns against squeezing the tick, as that will cause it to release all of its toxins.
Science has only a basic understanding of tick-borne diseases and their co-infectious influences on victims. There are still many unknowns and much medical and political debate about diagnostics and treatments. According to Johnson, victims must become warriors against a health care system that falls short in understanding their disease and learn to advocate for themselves in finding the right doctor and services that work for them.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through—not even Donald Trump,” she said.