Mystery 'Lyme-Like'
Tick-Born Disease In Montana

From Patricia Doyle, PhD

Hello Jeff...
Well, now we have Lyme Disease LIKE Illness. Amazing how many times we have been hearing the word LIKE associated with various diseases. Let us not forget West Nile LIKE Virus, etc, etc.
Lyme Disease was first diagnosed in a youth who lived near the dock where the Plum Island government ferryboat docked on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. I could not help but wonder the proximity of the Lyme Disease LIKE case to the Rocky Mountain Lab in Montana. As you may remember, Rocky Mountain Lab is seeking public support and approval for an upgrade to BSL4. They will then research tick vectored diseases for which there are no cures or preventive vaccines.
Patricia Doyle
Mysterious Tick Disease Afflicts Montana
By James Hagengruber
Billings Gazette - Montana
Scientists believe an undiscovered, Lyme disease-like illness is being transmitted by wood ticks in Montana, particularly in the Yellowstone River area from Livingston downstream to Forsyth.
The bulls-eye rash, fever, body aches and lingering exhaustion caused by the illness have stumped doctors for at least a decade, said State Epidemiologist Todd Damrow. Local, state and federal scientists are now launching an effort to crack the mystery.
"We could have a new disease here, we just don't know right now," Damrow said. "We don't know how prevalent it is, how pervasive, or even the nature of the illness. Those are questions we need to address."
The state receives a "handful" of reports each year of unexplainable illnesses believed to be caused by a tick bite, Damrow said. The cases have been clustered in the Yellowstone River drainage, but reports have also come in from both Helena and Missoula. In each instance, Lyme disease has been ruled out, as has Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
"As far as we can tell these cases are fairly uncommon," Damrow said. "We don't think it's a large epidemic, but you never know. We've never followed it."
Antibiotics have been used successfully to treat recent cases reported to the state. Damrow doesn't know if the illness has ever caused any deaths.
"We've never looked. We have no way of knowing. Even if someone died from it, the cause wouldn't show up on the death certificate. There's no test for it," he said.
"We also have no idea if, like Lyme disease, there's serious long-term consequences."
Former Yellowstone County Commissioner Ziggy Ziegler developed symptoms of the illness two years ago, shortly after his wife spotted a tiny eight-legged tick on his lower back. She plucked the tick off with a tweezers, sealed it in a pill bottle and stashed the bottle in the freezer.
A few days later, Ziegler began feeling like he had the flu. The next morning, a red rash the size of a silver dollar surrounded the bite. Ziegler immediately went to see his physician, Elaine Samuel. Lyme disease was suspected and the tick sent off to Helena for testing.
Ziegler is an active person, but after being bitten, he struggled to find the energy to do basic tasks. "It felt like someone pulled the plug and I was two quarts low," he said. It was even worse not knowing what was wrong.
Although the microorganism that causes Lyme disease - Borrelia burgdorferi - was named after a Montana scientist, Willy Burgdorfer, Montana is the only state in the nation where a case of the disease has not been confirmed. The species of tick that carries Lyme disease also has never been found in Montana.
State officials, including Damrow, were convinced Ziegler was suffering from Lyme disease and had contracted it during a recent visit to California. Ziegler insisted he never did anything during his brief stay to put him in contact with ticks. He maintained the tick came from his heavily wooded 54-acre property south of Billings. Ticks are common in the area, he said.
Tests came back negative for Lyme disease. The tick was then shipped to the Vector-Borne Disease Unit of the Centers for Disease Control in Fort Collins, Colo.
Meanwhile, Ziegler was put on antibiotics. His physician continued searching for answers. This wasn't the first time she had a patient with unexplainable Lyme disease-like symptoms, Samuel said. "I think most of the physicians who practice in Montana have seen cases like this."
Five months later, results came back from the Centers for Disease Control. Experimental DNA analysis was used to search the gut contents of the tick, but nothing conclusive could be found, according to the report. The tick was identified as a Rocky Mountain Wood Tick, a species common to Montana and one that does not carry Lyme disease.
Ziegler's affliction could not be identified by science, the report concluded.
Whatever it was, the disease no longer bothers Ziegler. "I've had no ill-effects since they put me on medication," he said.
Samuel hopes the new investigation will identify the source of the disease and, eventually, lead to a test and a treatment. There's been too many unexplained cases to shrug off, she said.
"I do think there's something to this," Samuel said. "I'm glad they're getting fired up over this."
Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton will help state and local officials study suspected disease-bearing ticks. The federal lab was founded in 1928 to study Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a tick-borne illness that killed hundreds of settlers in Western Montana. In the early 1980s, the lab also identified the spiral-shaped bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
The lab's specialized equipment will play a vital role in finding the culprit behind Montana's mysterious tick-borne illness. Damrow said he "strongly suspects" a cousin of the Lyme disease-causing bacteria has adapted to Montana's tick population.
"Unless we look, we'll never know," he said. "Who knows how much health we could be protecting?"
Save Those Ticks
People who are bitten by ticks are asked to keep the tick alive and take it to their county health department.
The ticks will be studied to help identify a Lyme disease-like illness that has been reported in Montana, said Todd Damrow, state epidemiologist with the Montana Department Public Health and Human Services.
"If you have a tick on you that's not attached or dug in, we're not interested," Damrow said. "Ticks that are attached and that have started sucking blood, those are the ones we want."
The ticks should be removed carefully using a tweezers, then sealed into a plastic bag. The bite area should then be cleaned thoroughly. If a rash develops, a doctor should be seen as soon as possible, Damrow said.
The captured ticks should be taken to a county health department, where officials are being given instructions on further processing. Ticks that are alive will be of much greater help, Damrow said. "There's a lot more you can do with a live tick than a dead tick."
As long as proper moisture and temperature levels are maintained, ticks have survived for as long as five years on a single blood meal, Damrow said.
Patricia A. Doyle, PhD
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