Relapsing fever, a bacterial infection caused by a soft-tick bite, is extremely rare, according to a state health official who cautions Utahns not to be alarmed by the state's most recent case.
Wendy -ParsonsBaker, a 35-year-old Murray mother, is recovering from a tick bite that put her into a semicomatose state for nine days.State epidemiologist Craig Nichols said hers is the first case of relapsing fever in Utah in more than six years. In the past 10 years, only three cases have been identified in the entire state.
That doesn't minimize the severity of -ParsonsBaker's experience.
While camping in the Guardsman Pass area several weeks ago, the pregnant woman was unknowingly bitten by a soft-bodied tick.
Nichols said that in most cases, soft-tick bites are mild and, unlike hard-bodied ticks, the soft ones don't remain attached to the skin. Thus people generally are unaware they've been bitten.
Such was the case for -ParsonsBaker.
However, when subsequent flulike symptoms persisted, she knew something was wrong. An abnormal blood test prompted her obstetrician to order further evaluations, and she was taken by helicopter from Cottonwood Medical Center in Murray to LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Physicians there first diagnosed her ailment as Lyme Disease, the most common tick-transmitted disease in the world. While there's been an upsurge in cases in some parts of the United States, Utah's last reported case of Lyme disease was in 1982.
A hospital technician correctly identified the spiral-shaped bacterium that had infected the patient as one that causes relapsing fever, an extremely rare and difficult-to-diagnose ailment.
To ensure the safety of her unborn child, LDS Hospital physicians delivered -ParsonsBaker's child two months early by emergency Ceasarean section.
"Because the bacteria hadn't passed through the placenta barrier, the child only has to survive being born prematurely," her grandfather, Dr. Bruce Parsons said.
The newborn, Cynthia Alana, was listed in stable condition Saturday in LDS Hospital. Parsons said both his daughter and granddaughter have made "miraculous recoveries" from the ordeal.
"What's rare about this case is the bite occurred in northern Utah, and it is usually seen only in the southern part of the state," he said. "We almost always see a single case of relapsing fever; outbreaks are extremely rare."
Nichols said the only major outbreak was in 1973 at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
In addition to the four documented cases in Utah, three non-residents have thought they were bitten by ticks in Utah, and came down with relapsing fever when returning to their states. Nichols said the incubation period is five to 15 days.
With the exception of Colorado tick fever, the health official said, tick-borne diseases are rare in Utah. Nevertheless he cautioned all people going into the mountains to avoid tick exposure by using strong insect repellants.
"Wear long sleeves and pants, and do inspections of the body, especially along the hairlines, for ticks," he urged.
Because ticks crawl on the ground and live by biting warm-blooded animals, Nichols also cautioned hunters to be especially careful when skinning deer.
People shouldn't panic and stay out of the hills because of -ParsonsBaker's experience. "But remember, ticks do carry disease, and it's always a good idea to avoid them," he said.