Doctors Say Tick-Borne Illnesses Are On The Rise

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Tick-Borne Illness patient
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The wet weather this summer has meant more bugs for Middle Tennessee, and experts at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt say that’s meant more patients with tick-borne diseases, which can be quite serious.

“People often think about Lyme disease when they hear about tick bites, but in Tennessee, Lyme disease is not a problem,” said John Williams, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at hospital. “We see two diseases called ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These are diseases family physicians and pediatricians should be looking for right now.”

Several cases of both diseases have been recently confirmed at the hospital, and the Tennessee Department of Health has put out a notice stating that cases of ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever have increased this year. While rare, the illnesses can be fatal to children who go undiagnosed or have weakened immune systems. Two children have died from erlichiosis at Vanderbilt already this summer.

It’s important for parents to tell their family doctor about any tick bites if their child gets a fever afterward. “We don’t want parents to panic and think a tick bite means you need a trip to the Emergency Department, but parents can watch out for high fevers if their child has recently had a tick,” Williams said. “If so, a trip to see the family doctor can help determine if the fever is related to the bite.”

That’s what happened with 2-year-old Parker Lewis.

“On Father’s Day, we found a tick on him, and three days later he woke up so feverish and lethargic I took him to see the doctor,” said Parker’s mother, Valerie Lewis.

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The family doctor in Glasgow, Ky., David German, M.D., checked for an ear infection or tonsil trouble, but found neither. He sent Parker home and instructed his mother to watch the boy for changes. But Parker got worse the next day.

“I went to get the phone to call Dr. German to let him know I was taking Parker to the emergency room when I heard gurgling sounds,” Lewis said. Parker was having seizures, so Lewis immediately called an ambulance.

Later at the community hospital, German said that since Parker’s white blood cell counts were low and appeared to be dropping, he wanted to start treatment for a tick-borne infection.

Treatment was begun, but because his blood counts continued to drop, Parker was brought to the Children’s hospital. It was six days after his tick bite.

“This little boy did well, but it was because the family physician thought about tick-borne disease. That’s crucial. These diseases are uncommon, but when they do occur they can be severe,” Williams said.

Before this incident, Lewis was concerned about using bug repellants. But now, she says she’ll use a product with 10 to 30 percent DEET, because it’s considered appropriate for use on children older than 2 months by the American Academy of Pediatrics. She wants to protect both Parker and her 4-year-old son, Jackson.

“Now I have Deep Woods Off to try to keep Jackson from getting this. My husband and I are so grateful to our doctor and the doctors at Vanderbilt for making sure Parker is still with us and doesn’t have lasting effects from this illness,” Lewis said.

Written by Laurie Holloway, 615-322-4747

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