Mysterious tick disease afflicts Montana

Scientists believe an undiscovered Lyme disease-like illness is being transmitted by wood ticks in Montana, particularly in the Yellowstone River area from Livingston downstream to Forsyth. The bulls-eye rash, fever, body aches, and lingering exhaustion caused by the illness have stumped doctors for at least a decade, said State Epidemiologist Todd Damrow. Local, state, and federal scientists are now launching an effort to crack the mystery.

"We could have a new disease here, we just don't know right now," Damrow said. "We don't know how prevalent it is, how pervasive, or even the nature of the illness. Those are questions we need to address."

The state receives a "handful" of reports each year of unexplainable illnesses believed to be caused by a tick bite, Damrow said. The cases have been clustered in the Yellowstone River drainage, but reports have also come in from both Helena and Missoula. In each instance, Lyme disease has been ruled out, as has Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

"As far as we can tell, these cases are fairly uncommon," Damrow said. "We don't think it's a large epidemic, but you never know. We've never followed it."

Antibiotics have been used successfully to treat recent cases reported to the state. Damrow doesn't know whether the illness has ever caused any deaths. "We've never looked. We have no way of knowing. Even if someone died from it, the cause wouldn't show up on the death certificate. There's no test for it," he said. "We also have no idea whether, like Lyme disease, there are serious long-term consequences."

A Former Yellowstone County Commissioner developed symptoms of the illness 2 years ago, shortly after his wife spotted a tiny 8-legged tick on his lower back. She plucked the tick off with a tweezers, sealed it in a pill bottle and stashed the bottle in the freezer. A few days later, he began feeling like he had the flu. The next morning, a red rash the size of a silver dollar surrounded the bite. He immediately went to see his physician. Lyme disease was suspected and the tick sent off to Helena for testing.

[Though an] active person, after being bitten, the patient struggled to find the energy to do basic tasks. "It felt like someone pulled the plug and I was 2 quarts low," he said. It was even worse not knowing what was wrong.

Although the microorganism that causes Lyme disease -- _Borrelia burgdorferi_ -- was named after a Montana scientist, Willy Burgdorfer, Montana is the only state in the nation where a case of the disease has not been confirmed. The species of tick [_Ixodes scapularis_ - Mod.LL] that carries Lyme disease also has never been found in Montana.

State officials, including Damrow, were convinced the patient was suffering from Lyme disease and had contracted it during a recent visit to California. He insisted, however, he never did anything during his brief stay to put him in contact with ticks. He maintained the tick came from his heavily wooded 54-acre property south of Billings. Ticks are common in the area, he said. Tests came back negative for Lyme disease. The tick was then shipped to the Vector-Borne Disease Unit of the Centers for Disease Control in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Meanwhile, the patient was put on antibiotics. His physician continued searching for answers. This wasn't the first time she had a patient with unexplainable Lyme disease-like symptoms, She said. "I think most of the physicians who practice in Montana have seen cases like this."

5 months later, results came back from the CDC. Experimental DNA analysis was used to search the gut contents of the tick, but nothing conclusive could be found, according to the report. The tick was identified as a Rocky Mountain wood tick [_Dermacentor andersoni_ - Mod.LL], a species common to Montana and one that does not carry Lyme disease. The affliction could not be identified, the report concluded.

Whatever it was, the disease no longer bothers the patient. "I've had no ill-effects since they put me on medication," he said. His physician hopes the new investigation will identify the source of the disease and, eventually, lead to a test and a treatment. There have been too many unexplained cases to shrug off, she said.

"I do think there's something to this," she said. "I'm glad they're getting fired up over this."

Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton will help state and local officials study suspected disease-bearing ticks. The federal lab was founded in 1928 to study Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a tick-borne illness that killed hundreds of settlers in Western Montana. In the early 1980s, the lab also identified the spiral-shaped bacteria that causes Lyme disease. The lab's specialized equipment will play a vital role in finding the culprit behind Montana's mysterious tick-borne illness. Damrow said he "strongly suspects" a cousin of the Lyme disease-causing bacteria has adapted to Montana's tick population.

"Unless we look, we'll never know," he said. "Who knows how much health we could be protecting?"

[Byline: James Hagengruber]

 

Stephen Vantassel is a Certified Wildlife Control Professional. He is a nationally known writer including having been an assistant editor for Wildlife Control Technology magazine, author of numerous ADC articles as well as The Wildlife Removal Handbook rev.ed and the Wildlife Damage Inspection Handbook rev. ed. Mr. Vantassel is also a vocal critic of the growing animal rights movement. He has exposed the fallacies and deceptions of the animal rights protest industry through debate, lecture and publication.

3/8/03

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