Florida ticks cause growing concern - WFLA News Channel 8

Florida ticks cause growing concern

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Pictured: ticks Pictured: ticks
TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

Marilyn Kerr learned she had Lyme disease by accident.

Initially, she thought it was ringworm on her left arm. It was 1985 and she didn't want to really tell anybody, because it felt a bit shameful back in those days.

"Even though it should have never been," Kerr, now 71, said in her Tampa home on Tuesday.

She didn't know it back then, but what had happened on the Mohawk Trail in upstate New York that caused more than a decade of problems was actually brought on by something the size of a pen tip: a tick.

Now tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease are causing increasing problems across parts of the country. Earlier this year a preliminary report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found about 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, 10 times higher than what's usually reported to the CDC.

Florida is seeing an increase as well.

Data from the University of Florida shows Lyme disease cases in the state are still relatively small by comparison to the northeast (fewer than 100 per year). But the rate of growth of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, as much as 150 percent in the last 10 years, has put Florida among the top 20 states for the number of cases reported annually, according to the University.

Holly Donohoe, Associate Director of the Tourism Crisis Management Institute at UF, says the thought that Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses aren't here in Florida is incorrect.

"It is a myth... and part of that is because we've seen an explosion of Lyme disease in the northeast United States," Donohoe said. "But it doesn't negate the fact that we have cases of Lyme disease that are both locally acquired here in the state but also imported from people vacationing or visiting the northeast United States."

Donohoe says Florida is vulnerable to the effects of tick-borne diseases because so much of its economy depends on tourism.

"Tourism is the number one industry," she said. "On any given day there are 5 tourists for every one resident in this state... and the second most popular activities is nature-based outdoor activities."

Theme parks are the number one attraction. 

There's enough concern that UF will host a symposium on tick-borne diseases this Thursday.  Donohoe said local, state and national experts should start developing a battle plan before the problem gains a stronger foothold. Dr. Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for the Lyme disease program with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be one of the speakers.

"We want to get ahead of it down here so that we can be better equipped to protect our residents and our visitors," Donohoe said.

Awareness is key for people like Marilyn Kerr, who thought she was living with chronic fatigue syndrome for more than a decade.

"For 15 years I had decreasing abilities to function," said the retired registered nurse. "I was fatigued all the time. My brain wasn't working properly most of the time."

It wasn't until she was about to start a drug trial for chronic fatigue that doctors tested her for Lyme disease - just to rule it out. She says, in fact, 98 percent of the people in that trial turned out to be positive for Lyme disease.

"Some were from here. Some were from up north. Some were from the midwest. But - the course was the same," she said. "The problem is that most of the doctors down here do not believe there is Lyme disease in Florida and that's a real problem. Don't forget - everybody travels to Florida. They're moving to Florida from the northeast or the midwest... so we're bringing out diseases with us."

Kerr stayed on antibiotics for 18 months before she felt like herself again. She's now part of the Suncoast Lyme Support Network, which is active online and helps victims of the disease.

"I think that everybody who is suffering from fatigue or neurological problems, arthritis...they should all be tested for Lyme Disease...just to rule out," she said. "Just to make sure you don't have it so your doctor can take the proper course of treating whatever symptoms you have."

Read more about how to protect your family from Florida's ticks:

http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/hot_topics/families_and_consumers/ticks_and_disease.html

See the county-by-county breakdown of how many people are sick in your area:

http://www.floridacharts.com/merlin/freqrpt.asp

Read more about the University of Florida symposium this week:

http://www.epi.ufl.edu/?q=tick-borne-disease-symposium

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