TOPANGA — County officials warned hikers on Thursday to be cautious in the Santa Monica Mountains after finding the first tick in Los Angeles County showing evidence of carrying Lyme disease.
A hiker who frequents Topanga State Park reported finding the tick two weeks ago. Officials from the county's West Vector Control District said the tick tested positive for the disease, which can lead to severe neurological problems if left untreated.
Although authorities have suspected that ticks carrying the disease have existed for several years in Los Angeles County, they said the most recent finding--if confirmed with further tests on other ticks--would solidify those suspicions.
They recommended that all outdoor enthusiasts wear bright, long clothes, tuck pants into socks and wear tick repellent. In addition, they recommended checking for ticks daily after hiking outdoors.
"We want to caution everybody about this," said Robert Saviskas, the head of the West Vector Control District, at a news conference in the state park Thursday morning. "Until we have further confirmation, it's in the best interests of the public to take the precautions against ticks that they should have been taking all along."
Lyme disease has long been a fact of life for those living on the East Coast, where up to 90% of the ticks in some areas are infected with the malady. In California, the majority of cases of the disease have been reported in Northern California.
Julie Rosa, 52, of Topanga, said she was bitten Dec. 12 while leading a school group through Topanga State Park. Later, she said, she felt a pain on her side and discovered a large rash on her stomach with what looked like a blood blister in the middle.
"With my finger, I felt and went, aha!" she said. "This little guy was probably on me the whole time."
Rosa said she had read about Lyme disease and sent the tick to the IGenex lab in Palo Alto, which said it tested positive for Lyme disease.
She accompanied three officials of the West Vector Control District to the same area of Topanga State Park on Wednesday, walked the same trail and hunted for ticks, dragging a swatch of white flannel over trail-side brush.
"I don't think they expected them to find any; they really did find a number," Rosa said, adding that she stopped counting at five.
She said she took antibiotics for a month after she received the test results and has tested negative for Lyme disease.
"I have no intention of discontinuing my work at Topanga State Park or any of the Santa Monica Mountain areas. I love the mountains," she said.
"Now I'm waiting for the killer bees and the fire ants," she joked.
County health officials have thought that ticks carrying the disease existed in Los Angeles since they have diagnosed at least four cases since 1989 where evidence pointed to a local source of origin. A total of 28 cases have been reported by Los Angeles County authorities since 1989. Some 2,118 cases have been reported in California since 1983.
Also, Lyme-carrying ticks have been found at Ft. Tejon in Kern County and in San Bernardino County, said Dr. Robert Murray, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health Services.
"It's very important to know whether there are actually ticks that have been identified with the disease. It's one of the chinks that gives validity to the human cases," said Gail Van Gordon, public health entomologist for the county's Department of Health Services.
But Van Gordon and other county health officials reacted angrily to their fellow county agency's announcement, saying that proper procedures weren't followed in notifying health officials about the finding.
And they pointed out that the test, performed by a private lab, had not been confirmed by state laboratory officials.
The disease, which can also affect dogs and horses, is transmitted through the Western black-legged tick, a much smaller cousin of the more common dog tick. In California, only 1% to 2% of the pinhead-sized ticks carry the disease, though in some pockets the number is significantly higher, health officials said.
In most cases, the tick must feed between 12 to 24 hours before transmitting the disease, which can be treated with antibiotics in the early stages. A vaccine against the disease will probably receive Food and Drug Administration approval within the year.
Early symptoms are flu-like and can include a red rash similar to a bull's-eye surrounding the initial bite. Later symptoms include severe soreness in the joints and neurological problems such as loss of memory. In rare cases, the disease can be fatal.
The best defense against the disease, however, is prevention, health officials said. Besides light clothing and repellent, they also recommended checking for ticks at the hairline, behind ears and in the groin area.
Hikers in Topanga State Park on Thursday reacted worriedly to news of the possible presence of the infected ticks. Many said they had heard of Lyme disease, but thought it didn't exist in Southern California.