Canadian singer Alanis Morissette wrote a song called "Ironic" that (ironically) doesn’t really describe irony: Rain on your wedding day, a free ride when you already paid, a black fly in your Chardonnay… they all suck but they’re not ironic. What is ironic is Dr. Ed Breitschswerdt, an internationally renowned veterinary internist and tickborne disease expert, getting bitten and infected by a tick.
Dr. Breitschwerdt has worked on tickborne diseases for decades and is a wealth of knowledge on the subject, in terms of both animal and human infections. He regularly provides advice about how to avoid tickborne illnesses.
Dr. Breitschwerdt wrote an article about his recent tick-encounter, and here are some excerpts:
"…I do "tick checks" after outdoor activity on my farm, but I recently missed one. When I discovered the tick, I followed recommendation I’ve given to hundreds of individuals in lectures on tick-borne pathogens. I placed the parasite in a vial of alcohol and wrote the date of its removal on the label. This is an important step, as there are at least four tick species that attach to animals and people in North Carolina, and each species can transmit different bacteria that collectively cause a spectrum of diseases. Knowing the species can help the physician or veterinarian understand which infectious agent has been transmitted…The small tick in my armpit remained attached long enough for my body to mount an inflammatory response (itching, swelling and pain) before I noticed and removed it. Not initially feeling an attached tick is the norm, since ticks have evolved the ability to secrete chemicals that block pain and decrease the body’s inflammatory response."
- The fact that the tick was present for a while is critical, since it takes time after attachment before a tick starts feeding and can pose a potential risk for disease transmission.
"Nine days after removing my tick I developed severe chills. The next day my symptoms progressed to include fever, muscle pain and headache – classic symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and human granulocytic or monocytic ehrlichiosis, the three most serious and frequent tick-transmitted diseases of dogs and people in the southeastern United States.
"Typical of the early stages of these diseases, my white blood cell count (the body’s first line of defense) was low. My bone marrow responded by sending new white blood cells to fight the infection. After blood was obtained for diagnostic testing, antibiotic treatment was started immediately. This is of critical importance, as a delay in diagnosis and initiation of antibiotics for 24-48 hours greatly increases the severity of illness and the chances of death."
- Testing was performed on the tick and Dr. Breitschwerdt’s blood, and Rickettsia rickettsii DNA was found in both. In combination with his clinical signs, including a rash on his arms and legs (see photo), this confirmed the suspected diagnosis of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This is a serious disease from which approximately 6% of infected people die. Early recognition is critical, but diagnosis is often delayed because of failure to identify or report a tick bite, or failure of physicians to consider the disease.
Dr. Breitschwerdt concludes "This recent experience enhanced my belief that tick-transmitted diseases deserve respect and enhanced, comparative biomedical research. The next time you walk in the beautiful fields and valleys of North Carolina, apply a tick repellent and remember to check carefully for attached ticks when you return home."
Photo: Child’s right hand and wrist displaying the characteristic spotted rash of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (source: CDC Public Health Image Library #1962)