Ticks carrying Lyme disease more prevalent than ever in PA

Deer ticks capable of carrying Lyme disease have now been observed in all 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

A Shippensburg, Pa., doctor said the latest studies about ticks and Lyme disease further reinforce his belief that additional research dollars are needed for prevention, patient testing and treatment.

“I think our government needs to get a foothold on this thing,” Dr. Timothy Stonesifer said. “I think it’s an epidemic.”

Stonesifer was a family practitioner at a larger practice from 1994 to 2007, when he started working at the Cumberland Valley Parochial Medicine Clinic in Shippensburg to care for the area’s Amish and Mennonites.

He found himself researching Lyme disease as he noticed higher rates of the tick-borne disease in the plain community.

“It seemed the more I became aware of it, the more I picked up on disease,” he said.

The standard diagnostic test, conducted with drawn blood, is not fully effective in detecting the presence of Lyme disease, while other tests do not have Food and Drug Administration approval, Stonesifer said.

When diagnosed early, Lyme disease is easily treated with antibiotics. But the unchecked disease can progress to the point where it causes neurological issues such as headaches, phantom pains and cognitive problems.

Researchers at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced last week that, for the first time, blacklegged deer ticks have been observed across Pennsylvania. The range expansion took place in just decades.

“DEP’s vector-management team’s confirmation of the high risk of Lyme disease in every county of the commonwealth verifies that every Pennsylvanian, from Philadelphia to Erie, must take precautions to prevent the spread of Lyme disease,” acting DEP Secretary John Quigley said in a statement.

Another recent study found that half of all deer ticks carry the borrelia bacteria of Lyme disease, Stonesifer said.

Pennsylvania has reported the most cases of Lyme disease in the nation for the past five years. Four thousand cases are reported annually in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and hats should be worn during outdoor activities, and pant cuffs can be tucked into socks, Stonesifer said.

Stonesifer, a native of Chambersburg, Pa., encourages use of a clothing spray called permethrin.

“I’ve found that to be very effective myself,” he said.

Half of patients with Lyme disease do not exhibit the bull's-eye rash commonly associated with a tick bite, Stonesifer said. One tip off of possible infection is flu-like symptoms in the summer, he said.

Symptoms as the disease progress are fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and swelling in a single joint, according to Stonesifer, who graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Experts disagree whether Lyme disease is a chronic, persistent disease. Stonesifer believes people get ill from it, stay ill and develop long-term problems. “I think our government needs to step up and say this is a true epidemic," he said. "We need to do like we did in the '80s with HIV, and put our best researchers on this.”

Pennsylvania established a Lyme disease task force in 2014.