Summer brings the fear of contracting Lyme disease, a highly publicized illness caused by a form of corkscrew-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi . The disease, which is spread by ticks primarily in the summer months, is a real danger in most states, particularly those in the Northeast. But Orange County medical professionals say the threat here has been exaggerated.
"There are two diseases here--Lyme disease and mass hysteria," said Dr. Mark Catalanello, one of 13 doctors in the UC Irvine-based Fifth Pathway program, which recently completed a year of collecting data on the illness and presented its findings to pediatricians and pathologists at UCI and Long Beach Memorial Hospital. "You always hear about the poor debilitated kid, and there's a lot of shock value in those stories, but it's not as bad as it's said to be. The facts are blown out of proportion.
"The good news is that despite all the hysteria and the established bad side effects if undetected, it's very treatable," said Catalanello. "The bad news is if you don't treat it, it can pound you."
There had not been a documented case of a person contracting the disease in Orange County, according to public health officials, despite the presence of the carrier tick here. There are, however, about seven Orange County residents who contracted the disease outside the area.
But in Northern California and all other states except Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming, more than 14,000 indigenous cases have been reported since 1982, with the vast majority occuring in the Northeast.
"It's really an East Coast phenomena," said Catalanello. "There are areas there where 70% to 100% of ticks are infected. How it got out here is a total mystery, but in California, the state average (of infected ticks) is about 1.3%. It's probably in Orange County, but no one is making a big stink about it here so no one is doing a whole lot of research on it in this area."
Dr. Tom Prendergast, deputy health officer/epidemiologist for Orange County Public Health in Santa Ana, said about 100 ticks have been tested in Orange County. Thus far, the bacteria has not been found.
"But it is entirely possible that it is here," he said. "We just don't yet have a reliable case."
Lyme disease was named after an epidemic of the disease broke out about 15 years ago in Lyme, Conn.
About two to six weeks after the bite of an infected tick, an expanding rash develops at the bite site in about half of patients, according to Catalanello.
"After that, they may appear normal," he said. "If, and I stress if, a person is going to get chronic manifestations, it will most likely be weeks to months later."
Those symptoms may include fever, fatigue, musculoskeletal discomfort, headaches, chills and lymph node enlargement. Symptoms may wane, and if left untreated, may become chronic, with flare-ups persisting for years.
In children, arthritis in the knee is a common and dramatic symptom, Catalanello said.
"When a child gets Lyme disease, he or she will say, 'Mommy, my knee hurts,' and the child won't be able to walk. It's that debilitating."
Catalanello said those exposed to the illness usually don't contract it.
"Like any major disease, those who test positive don't necessarily have symptoms," he said. "If you've been to an area where it is and you're sick, treat it."
In the Northeast, Lyme disease is carried by the deer tick. On the West Coast, it's carried by the Western black-legged tick. Both are about the size of a pinhead and difficult to see, like a "moving freckle," the Fifth Pathway report said.
The ticks position themselves on grass, low-lying tree branches or shrubs and grasp onto people or animals as they brush against that vegetation. "What is interesting is that Orange County has just at least as dense a population and as favorable a habitat for the tick as other places," said Catalanello. "The tick is here, and I bet we have the disease, but we don't yet have the proof."
Catalanello said researchers think the reason no one has been reported contracting the disease in Orange County is because of the "humongous local population of the Western fence lizard, or blue-belly."
Reptiles sampled in other California counties do have the tick in their bodies, he said. But unlike other species that act as tick hosts, or "reservoirs," such as humans, deer or mice, the lizard does not contract the disease. Therefore, when the lizard is bitten by another tick, that tick does not become infected and later spread the bacteria.
"The lizard is a dead end and the buck stops there," Catalanello said. "And if a tick had to be stuck somewhere, the lizard is the best place to be. It's a huge population that the tick loves because it's easy. Ticks don't fly or jump, and the lizards are down on their level. It's a lot less hassle for the tick than humans."