Lyme disease research, legislation allows more aggressive treatments for sufferers

August 24, 2011

Summertime, when kids and grown-ups abandon the confines of the indoors and head outside to camp, hike, fish and commune with nature — and all of her friends. Flies, mosquitoes and ticks are just a few of the critters that go along with summer outdoors, and we all do our best to avoid the biting and stinging insects, but what happens if you are accosted by a tick? What are the myths behind Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases in Texas?

At the UNT Health Science Center, Phillip Williamson, PhD, assistant professor of Forensic and Investigative Genetics and research director of the Tick-Borne Disease Research Laboratory, is considered one of Texas’ top experts in tick-borne diseases and continues to research patterns in reported cases of Lyme disease in the state. Since 2004, Williamson has directed Texas’ only lab that analyzes Texas ticks and tracks tick-borne diseases.

"There’s a misconception that there is no vulnerability for Lyme disease here in Texas," Williamson said. "The black-legged deer tick, which commonly carries Lyme disease in the Eastern U.S., isn’t the most common pest in Texas. Ninety-five percent of the ticks in Texas are the Lone Star tick. We have documented people in Texas who haven’t left the state, yet experience symptoms similar to Lyme disease after being bitten by the Lone Star tick. These symptoms are usually categorized as Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness or STARI, for which doxycycline is prescribed."

Last year, research by Williamson, several of the researchers in his lab and collaborators at UNT’s Denton campus was published in Emerging Infectious Diseases exploring the type, frequency and distribution of tick-borne pathogens and bacterial agents in Texas. Their research showed that people in Texas and the Southern U.S. may experience tick-related illnesses very similar to Lyme disease that seem to be transmitted by ticks other than the normal Lyme vector. And those suffering from these illnesses have the right to be treated for tick-borne diseases.

That’s where Texas legislation passed in the latest session will make a difference.  Until recently, it was assumed that Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases don’t exist in Texas ticks, and physicians who aggressively treated individuals exhibiting symptoms of Lyme disease could have their licenses revoked.

Standard treatment following a tick bite would be two weeks of antibiotics. However, longer-term, more aggressive treatment with antibiotics can help prevent Lyme disease in some people — like Dave Claunch’s wife, who developed chronic Lyme disease. Only following a year of strong antibiotic treatment is she feeling well enough to get on with a normal daily life. But Claunch and his wife had to go outside of Texas and fight a disbelieving medical board to get the antibiotic treatment.

The research that Williamson is conducting in the DNA labs at the UNT Health Science Center is helping the state medical board and physicians better understand tick-borne diseases and create treatments that will prevent the debilitating effects that Claunch’s wife had to experience. The new legislation allows physicians in Texas to treat chronic Lyme disease and attend continuing medical education courses to learn more about the disease.

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