WSFA 12 special report: Lyme disease in Alabama

Published: May. 19, 2014 at 9:04 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 18, 2014 at 9:04 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Now that the weather is getting warmer, more people will be spending more time outdoors and that means there is a chance you could get Lyme disease. Doctors claim that the disease is rare in the south and that the chance of contracting the disease is small. Are the chances really that small though?

The CDC estimates that there will be 300,000 cases of Lyme disease each year; Alabama however will see fewer than five percent of those cases. But more and more people are claiming they have the disease, and the reason why starts with a doctor's visit.

Mike Yates is an avid turkey hunter and being outdoors is his passion. He was almost robbed of this simple pleasure when he contracted Lyme disease.

"They gave me ten days worth of medicine and said you're good to go," Yates said. "Me being ignorant to it also, I said 'you're the doctor'. So I did what he said."

Yates' symptoms got worse. He lost 60 pounds in five months and two additional medical opinions contradicted the initial diagnosis.

"I was diagnosed with shy-drager which is an advanced stage of Parkinson disease and my daughter, being in the medical field, told me what it was," Yates said. "It gives you a five to eight year shelf life to live."

Despite the news, Yates and his wife began researching his symptoms. What they learned is Yates had Lyme disease. How it was misdiagnosed is still a mystery.

It's something that baffles Kevin Wolf.

"The only possibility we could find was Lyme disease," Wolf said.

Wolf started the Lyme Disease Association of Alabama after doctors told him that Lyme disease doesn't exist in Alabama. Wolf says his son is proof that it does.

"He came down with what seemed like flu like symptoms," Wolf said. "He had a high fever of 105 degrees and started having joint pain. The doctors decided that it was a psychiatric problem and that he needed to find a way to deal with the symptoms."

Lyme disease is known as the great imitator because its symptoms mimic so many other illnesses. It may start with the feeling of having the flu, a fever, headaches and fatigue. The disease could lead to joint pain, muscle aches, and neurological or heart problems if left untreated.

Last year, the State Department of Health recorded 390 cases, only 22 of which were confirmed.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that is transmitted through tick bites.

WEB EXTRA: How to remove a tick

A tick can be the size of a sesame seed, so small that some people may not recognize the bite until they feel the symptoms.

"They have an innate ability to not only attach tightly but they can secret some anesthetic in their saliva that makes the host unaware the tick can be there," Dr. Dee Jones said.

Dr. Jones and Dr. Mary McIntyre say that the reason so many people are being misdiagnosed is that patients aren't being properly tested.

"A lot of people will have symptoms and they will go ahead and get a test done but it's not the recommended test that the CDC recommends, which is a two step test," Dr. McIntyre said. "So there are a lot of false positives as a result."

Thanks to the right testing, Mike Yates' life is no longer a death sentence. Instead, he enjoys good days and bad. Days he thought were numbered before he and his wife put in the work by asking questions and getting the right answers.

Ticks are most active in warmer months, mostly between April and September. To avoid them, use repellents that contain 20 to 30 percent DEET on exposed skin and clothing. Also use products that contain Permethrin, which is a synthetic chemical used to treat clothing and gear, such as boots and tents. It will protect your clothing through several washings.

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