Despite data, Lyme disease sufferers say infection has arrived in Utah

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 5:51 p.m. MST

Lori Holt flips through her daughter's medical papers from the last year and a half since her daughter was bitten by a deer tick in Utah. Holt is trying to get the word out about the prevalence of Lyme disease in Utah.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A once vibrant 14-year-old is often too sick to get out of bed. Her health has been off and on like that for nearly two years.

Sometimes she's throwing up uncontrollably. Other times, pain resonates through her body. Most of the time she just feels general malaise. And after dozens of blood tests, medical visits and lab reports, no one is really sure what Alyssa Holt is suffering from.

Her mother and an out-of-state doctor, who is treating Alyssa, believe it has to be Lyme disease.

"It's affected her life in every way," Lori Holt said about her daughter.

Lyme disease is not common in Utah and historically it hasn't been much of a problem, according to JoDee Baker, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. She said there's no local evidence of deer ticks, which is what causes the most concern in Eastern states where Lyme disease is endemic. 

But another kind of tick — the Western blacklegged tick — blamed for spreading the infectious disease throughout California, is quite possibly present in Utah. What remains unknown is how prevalent it is.

"There's no reason to say why ticks wouldn't migrate across the country like other species of animals and insects do," Baker said. "It's entirely possible we do have ticks here that would carry Lyme disease and we want to find them and we want to help people who do have these symptoms to feel better, to get better and to get the appropriate treatment."

Researchers with the health department and Utah State University are working on updating studies on Lyme disease in Utah. Baker said they are also testing ticks found in different places throughout the state. A report on those measures is due out later this year.

The health department, however, maintains its stance that no locally contracted cases of Lyme disease have been confirmed within the state for quite some time.

"Lyme disease testing is very tricky, it is very complicated," Baker said.

The last time state data were officially reported, in 2008 and 2009, six cases identified in Utah had been picked up by people traveling outside of the state, according to the health department. Locally contracted cases suspected during that same time have gone unconfirmed, due somewhat to conservative testing standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine's Division of Infectious Disease, said that a diagnosis would only be confirmed if a patient — who has symptoms and a history that would warrant contraction of the disease — tests positive for two separate, but consecutive blood tests.

"The likelihood of contracting it here is really so small that I'd be suspicious," he said. "But I don't think, for the individual person, that it really matters where you caught it. It really matters that you have it and how you get treated."

Treatment for the disease depends on how far it has progressed, Swaminathan said.

In its early stages, the doctor said Lyme disease can be treated with relatively short courses of oral antibiotics. In more severe, later stages of the illness, intravenous antibiotics are sometimes administered, and in longer courses of therapy.

"It's usually not difficult to treat," Swaminathan said, adding that the elusive disease "is curable. In fact, it is almost always curable."

Trouble is, he said, nine out of 10 people don't really know what they're looking for.

"Every bit of me believes that this is what she has, that it is Lyme disease," Holt said, fighting back tears. "Because she was normal in every way before this."

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