By Bill Lawyer

It was a beautiful and sunny morning May 12, the kind of day on which many people would naturally head to a park, work in their garden, or go for a hike.

But the takeaway message from a panel of scientists and experts at a community roundtable at Rye City Hall that morning was “not so fast.” The focus of the program was ticks — what we can do to prevent getting bitten, and, if bitten, how to decrease the likelihood of serious, chronic illness.

The ever-rising number of people who’ve contracted tick-transported diseases (Lyme disease is just one of close to 20 in our area) prompted the Rye YMCA and the Healthier Sound Shore Coalition to organize the event. Y Executive Director Gregg Howells and Dinah Howland, a founding member of the Coalition, welcomed a crowd of interested citizens. When Howland asked the audience if they or a relative had contracted Lyme or similar disease, nearly everyone raised their hand.

The first speaker was Dr. Mayla Hsu, director of research and science for the global Lyme Alliance. With the use of excellent graphics, many using greatly enlarged photos, she described the physical attributes that enable ticks to prey on unsuspecting mammals, such as white-footed mice, deer, and raccoons.

Dr. Daniel Cameron, president of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society

Ticks have sensory organs that help them detect the presence of mammal-releasing carbon dioxide. And, they have specially adapted front legs (eight of them, as they are arachnids,) to grasp on to the prey, and barbed “mouths” that keep ticks attached until they are full. They send chemicals into the “host” so the person or animal doesn’t feel any pain when bit.

Given ticks’ need for moist, wooded, or shrub environments, Dr. Hsu recommends creating “buffer zones” around suburban habitats, and staying on the trails when hiking. Plus — and this is really important — everyone is advised to do a tick check whenever they are in tick-friendly landscapes.

Next was a presentation by Dr. Daniel Cameron, president of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. He emphasized that the hardest part is the diagnosis, as the range of symptoms varies greatly. Some people show no symptoms, and some develop months or even years later.

One of the challenges in finding medicines that can be effective in treating chronic tick diseases is getting people to use a placebo so that accurate tests can be performed.

Cameron, who has been working in the field since the 1970s, recounted the many twists and turns in the attempt to find a cure, or, at least, a manageable treatment regime. He feels that the number of people with Lyme is much larger now, and that, as accurate diagnosis is accomplished, more funds will be allocated to find a cure.

The last speaker was local resident David Severance, who has undergone treatment for a wide range of Lyme symptoms, which he described in detail, along with the attendant financial cost (most treatment was not covered by health insurance). Despite his healthy-looking appearance, Severance explained that even now he only works part time, because for every day he works he needs to rest for two days.

The roundtable concluded on a hopeful note, however, with the experts stressing that the medicines that don’t work are helpful in the search for ones that do.

Photo by Lisa Tidball