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Lyme Disease News Is Vindication for Some

Health: Southland residents who have struggled to convince doctors and officials that they have the ailment find support in discovery of local tick reportedly carrying the bacteria.

February 21, 1998|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and CLAIRE VITUCCI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While evidence of the first Lyme disease-carrying tick in the Los Angeles area alarmed hikers and homeowners in the Santa Monica Mountains this week, the news brought vindication to Barbara Barsocchini.

She is one of several local people found to have Lyme disease who say they have long been ignored by a medical community that is skeptical that the illness could originate in Los Angeles.

Members of the small band tell similar tales of being repeatedly dismissed by doctors as they sought a cure for their illness, a difficult to diagnosis combination of symptoms that includes sore joints, chronic fatigue and, in later stages, neurological problems.

Over the years, they have formed their own support groups, created Internet sites and launched campaigns to warn about the disease.

Last April, a group of Malibu residents who believed they suffered from the disease even called for an investigation of their claims by state health officials. County health officials said there wasn't enough evidence to support a diagnosis for the nearly 50 residents who thought they had the ailment.

Now, although county officials warn that additional testing must be done to confirm that local ticks carry the illness, Barsocchini hopes more physicians will begin recognizing symptoms of Lyme disease.

"Doctors need to listen to us," she said. "They either say it's in our heads, it's chronic fatigue or rheumatoid arthritis. . . . They're ignoring it, and it could be Lyme disease."

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A Topanga woman hiking through Topanga State Park found the apparent disease-carrying tick in December. This week, West Vector Control District officials announced that the insect tested positive for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

The finding came as no surprise to public health officials, who have suspected for several years that ticks carrying the disease existed in Los Angeles County. Three of the four surrounding counties have reported such ticks.

Of 28 cases of Lyme disease reported across Los Angeles County since 1989, at least four are believed to have come from the bites of local ticks. Those cases originated in Griffith Park, Beachwood Canyon in Hollywood, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the Granada Hills area, said Dr. Roshen Reporter, medical epidemiologist for the county's acute communicable disease control program.

State and county health officials recently launched a study of Lyme disease claims among residents of the Malibu area. Results are not yet available.

Nonetheless, state and local health officials said the recent finding may provide the concrete evidence needed to convince doctors who, until now, have been reluctant to diagnose the disease.

"Victims were looked at as weirdos or hypochondriacs," said Dr. James Katzel, head of UC San Francisco's Lyme Disease Clinic. "Now, you can say for sure that the disease does exist. Here's hard proof."

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Many physicians don't immediately recognize Lyme disease because it is extremely difficult to diagnose, experts say.

No accurate blood tests exist to pinpoint it, so doctors have to rely on a clinical diagnosis that can take several hours. And the symptoms resemble those of several other diseases. In fact, some in the medical community have dubbed Lyme disease the "great imitator."

Compounding the problem is that the malady is very rare in California. Only 1% to 2% of ticks in the state carry the illness, compared with up to 90% in parts of the East Coast, where the disease was first identified in the United States in 1975.

Even more puzzling, cases of Lyme disease are on the decrease, although experts in the field aren't quite sure why. After a peak of 345 reported cases in California in 1990, the number has declined to 67 last year, a plunge of 81%.

"We can't explain why these figures are dropping," said Robert Murray, the state health agency's Lyme disease expert. "They're dropping in the United States as a whole."

Still, victims of the debilitating disease say it's important for doctors to be aware of the illness. It can be easily treated with antibiotics if caught in its early stages.

The longer a patient goes without treatment, the more painful the disease becomes--and the lower the chance of a cure.

Chatsworth resident Barbara Wheeler said she contracted Lyme disease while gardening in her yard last July. After emergency room officials were unable to diagnose the ailment, she went to her own physician, who recognized the telltale bull's-eye rash and promptly put her on antibiotics.

Wheeler credits her doctor with being well-informed and saving her from the disease. "It is not something we're overreacting to," she said. "It's real pain."

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