Auburn women aim to help solve Lyme ‘mystery’

Ticks out in higher numbers, some infected
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Auburn resident Virginia Ward said she feels “a real mission” to help people with Lyme disease in the area.

Along with Christine Ryland, they started a support group for those struggling with the affliction that is transmitted by the bite of a western black-legged tick, which officials said are out in higher amounts earlier than normal and samples have tested positive for the disease.

Ward said she contracted her case from a tick bite 11 years ago when visiting Scotland, though it went undiagnosed for 10 years, and now that she has the proper treatment, she can go months without pain, something unimaginable in the decade before.

“I went to so many well-known doctors and all I knew, most of the time I was in pain and had muscle and joint pain,” she said. “Even some well known rheumatologists didn’t even know what it was. That’s what’s scary – the widespread ignorance in medical circles about Lyme disease.”

It can start with a mild flu-like illness and develop over time into severe chronic health problems, with early symptoms including chills, fever, muscle and joint paint and, if left untreated, it can cause arthritis and nervous system complications, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Those abnormalities can include memory and concentration loss as well as numbness, tingling or pain in the arms and legs, according to the state department.

Since going on antibiotics, Ward said, “It’s a very gradual improvement in the pains I used to always have at any given moment.”

Now that she’s on the path to recovery, she’s trying to educate others in the community at the Lyme disease support group that meets on the third Tuesday of every month at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 1279 High St.

She and Ryland started the group about two years ago upon realizing the closest support meetings in the foothills were in Sacramento. Ward said at its peak, the Auburn group at 25 people at one of its gatherings, but the average is more around 10 now.

She attributes the lower attendance to the launching of the Grass Valley Lyme disease support group, which started about six months ago in the community where a lot of people had been driving from to attend the Auburn meetings.

“There’s a lot of Lyme sufferers out there and many more who are undiagnosed,” Ward said. “So that’s what we are concerned about – those who have a mystery disease and they actually have Lyme disease.”

Placer County had one case of Lyme disease reported in 2011, while 2010’s eight reported cases marked the only year since 2001 the region had more than three, according to figures from the state.

Cindy Watson, a client services program manager in public health for Placer County, said the 2010 spike can likely be attributed to a change in reporting methods.

“The ticks are out in higher numbers,” at this time of year, Watson said. “People need to be aware of when they’re in areas where ticks are known to be.”

Wooded areas and underbrush are some of those places, she said, and there are various ways to mitigate the danger of getting bit by a tick. Wearing light colored clothing and long sleeves and pants is recommended, for starters, as well as repellents with DEET, she said.

“Stay in the middle of trails avoiding grassy areas and contact with logs, tree trunks and branches,” Watson said. “That tends to be where the nymph ticks are most often found.”

Checking all over the body not just while in the area but up to two or three days after is important, she said.

“Because sometimes you miss them,” Watson said. “They’re pretty tiny little critters.”

If bit by a tick, Placer County Public Health Laboratory offers a service for a small fee that will test the tick for Lyme disease, so Ward emphasized the importance of not throwing away the tick.

“Put it in a sealed baggy with a leaf of a moist cotton ball to keep it from drying out,” she said.” Bring it to the DeWitt Center.”

Kathleen Harris is another Auburn woman dedicated to educating the community on Lyme disease, which she said she was infected with in 1991 but did not get diagnosed until seven years later.

Harris, president of Auburn’s Harris Industrial Gases, said she went through a struggle similar to that described by Ward of seeing multiple doctors for years until learning what was wrong.

“There seem to be two camps in Lyme disease, and one is the doctors that realize it can be a chronic disease and has to be treated long term until symptoms desist,” she said. “And there is the other camp that believes after two or four weeks of treatment, if you’re not better, you didn’t really have it or it’s all in your mind, or something else.”

It masquerades as other diseases with similar symptoms, and it is grossly underdiagnosed, Harris said.

“Fewer than 40 percent of people that are infected with Lyme disease get the bull’s-eye rash,” that is characteristic of it, she said.

Ward, for example, never developed the rash.

“It’s called the great imitator,” Ward said of Lyme disease. “Meaning it imitates many other diseases, so people may have it, but might not know they have it.”

For more information on the Auburn and Grass Valley Lyme disease support groups, contact Ward at (530) 823-5721.


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews