Infectious Disease Doctor: No threat of Lyme disease in the Cape Fear region but you still should worry about tick bites

Others dispute this; NC Department of Health and Human Services urges caution to prevent tick bites

Take precautions to avoid tick-borne illnesses

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are a growing number of tick-borne illnesses around the country and geographically, ticks are spreading to more places in the U.S.

Dr. Paul Kamitsuka, an Infectious Disease Physician, said one tick-related disease that is not found in Wilmington is Lyme disease.

“It’s interesting because we have the tick, the black-legged ticks, that do transmit Lyme disease here and for the longest time, we were wondering why we didn’t see the disease,” he said.

As it turns out, Dr. Kamitsuka explained the ticks in the Cape Fear region feed on lizards and something in the lizards’ blood cleanses the disease-causing pathogen that spreads Lyme Disease. In other parts of the country, the ticks feed on mice, which do not have this Lyme disease-killing power in their blood stream.

“So, it blocks transmission here in this area and we are the beneficiaries,” he said.

Lyme disease is characterized by fever, headache, fatigue and a bullseye rash.

Still, you will want to take precautions to avoid tick bites when in nature in Southeastern North Carolina, by using DEET and other EPA approved repellents.

In our part of North Carolina, ticks carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which causes fever, headache, joint ache and muscle ache.

Ticks also carry Anaplasmosis, which has similar symptoms.

Dr. Kamitsuka said that’s why we need to take precautions.

“If you go hiking, try to stick to the trail,” he said. "Avoid walking intense vegetation because the ticks like to be at the tip of standing vegetation and get under clothing. Use insect repellent containing DEET. After you come back from being outdoors, do a good to check and shower down. Those would be prudent precautions.

“The key thing is most tick-borne illnesses are fairly easily treated so if you have took exposure and then a week later you develop a fever, let your clinician know so that it can be considered in terms of what caused your fever,” he said.

It is important to note, however, the spread of Lyme Disease is a controversial topic in the medical profession.

According to data from the North Carolina Division of Public Health, the number of confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease has increased over the past five years in North Carolina.

Kelly Haight Connor, Press Assistant in Office of Communications with the NC Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in an email that surveillance by the CDC indicates Lyme disease has gradually made its way from the Northeast United States into Virginia into the northwest region of North Carolina.

Reported Cases of Lyme Disease – United States, 2017, according to the CDC. (Source: CDC)
Reported Cases of Lyme Disease – United States, 2017, according to the CDC. (Source: CDC) (Source: CDC)

According to the data from the CDC, in 2018, there were 158 probable and 58 confirmed cases of Lyme disease across North Carolina.

The average of confirmed Lyme disease cases in North Carolina 2017 was 0.70 cases per 100,000.

The national average is 9.1 cases per 100,000 residents.

“Due to the expansion of Lyme disease into North Carolina, the Division of Public Health (DPH) has received federal funding to do targeted tick surveillance in northwest North Carolina along the Tennessee and Virginia borders,” Haight Connor wrote in an email. “Through tick dragging surveillance and the collection and identification of ticks submitted by veterinarians, the NC DPH has identified Ixodes ticks, the vector of Lyme disease, throughout the state, indicating that it is possible to acquire Lyme disease in regions outside the northwest portion of the state. Surveillance to characterize the distribution and infection rates of Ixodes scapularis ticks in North Carolina is ongoing.”

Many of the cases are found in northwestern portion of the state (Ashe, Alleghany, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes, and Madison counties).

Marcia E. Herman-Giddens, PA, MPH, DrPH, Adjunct Professor, Gillings School of Global Public Health, UNC, Chapel Hill and Scientific Adviser, Tick-borne Infections Council of North Carolina, Inc., sent an email after this story was published.

“The blood of NC lizards does not kill the Lyme bacteria,” she wrote. “Even if one thought Wilmington lizards have blood that kills the Lyme bacteria, the state map with Lyme disease incidence shows lizards must not be doing a very good job of it. It is very unlikely that all the cases around Wilmington and along the coast are among travelers to the northeast or other endemic areas which, if the lizard blood theory were true, would be the only way to explain these cases.”

More information about ticks can be found here.

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