Bringing light to Lyme disease
Bringing light to Lyme disease

Forget world peace.

Or children suffering from cancer.

It's not about curing hunger, AIDS in Africa or poverty in America's inner cities.

For Miss Converse County, the 2009 Miss Wyoming Scholarship Pageant represents a chance to address a much more personal problem she believes not many people know exists.

Charis Vetter, 22, of Douglas suffers from the long-term effects of Lyme disease, which she acquired from a tick bite while on a canoe trip in Minnesota at the age of 12.

She still has stomach problems, headaches, anxiety and other neurological problems because she was not diagnosed with Lyme disease until more than five years after contact with the tick.

She spent most of her teenage years sick. She was so skinny people thought she had an eating disorder. Doctors thought she had cancer, but all her laboratory tests came back normal.

"It's terrifying," Vetter said. "You have all these symptoms and it starts to play with your brain. You just don't know. A couple times I thought I was going to die - I was 80 pounds."

She had never planned on entering a beauty pageant, she said there were too many stereotypes surrounding them. But in 2006, she decided to enter the Miss South Dakota pageant to talk to people about Lyme disease. When she moved to Wyoming in 2007 because of her father's job, she wanted to spread the message to Wyoming residents.

State health officials said Wyoming residents should not worry too much about Lyme disease because the blacklegged tick, which carries the disease, is not found here. It is more commonly found in the upper Midwest and the East Coast.

In his 12 years at Casper-Natrona County Health Department, director Bob Harrington said all of the cases he has heard of in the state have either been acquired elsewhere or misdiagnosed.

"Don't jump to the conclusion you have Lyme disease," Harrington said. " The odds are working against that … It's probably a spider bite."

Tracy Murphy, a state epidemiologist, said he does not want to down play the seriousness of Lyme disease, though. People travel to states where Lyme disease is more common and the disease can have long-term consequences.

"Wyoming providers do need to be aware of the clinical picture of Lyme disease even though it may not be acquired here," Murphy said.

About 20,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported every year to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only three cases were reported from Wyoming in 2007, the most recent data available.

Sixty-eight cases have been diagnosed in Wyoming from 1990 to 2007, according to the CDC, but other states have seen much higher incidences of Lyme disease. New York saw almost 80,000 cases. Lyme disease is most prevalent in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland.

A skin rash that looks like a bull's-eye is the most common symptom of early Lyme disease, Murphy said, and it usually appears one to 50 days after the tick bite. He also said most people who acquire Lyme disease can never recall a tick bite because the tick that transmits the disease is a small tick in the "nymph stage." It is about the size of a ballpoint pen tip.

If the tick has been attached to the skin for a long time, it can be engorged with blood and be more recognizable.

Vetter remembers finding a tick on her skin during her canoe trip.

"Ewwwww," she said. "I was not feeling well and I had a rash."

Doctors thought the rash was impetigo, a common bacterial rash found generally in children. Her condition continued to worsen through her teen years. She had chronic stomach problems, went through bouts of strep throat and felt exhausted all the time.

Finally, a doctor in Missouri tested her for Lyme disease at the insistence of her mother. Vetter's mother was diagnosed with Lyme disease years ago, although her symptoms were cured because she caught the disease early.

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If caught early, Lyme disease can be treated by antibiotics, according to the CDC, but if left untreated can cause long-term problems in joints and the nervous system.

Lyme disease can be misdiagnosed, Vetter said. Many of the symptoms are nondescript, such as fever, fatigue and headaches.

The CDC said there are several tests for Lyme disease, but not all of them have been adequately validated, which adds to the difficulty in diagnosis. The government agency recommends doctors perform two blood tests, the ELISA or IFA test and a Western blot test, before making a Lyme disease diagnosis.

Vetter said she felt better as soon as she began taking antibiotics, but her body built up a resistance to them. She has turned to some alternative treatments and tries to eat right, exercise and take supplements to manage her disease.

While practicing the piano - her talent for the Miss Wyoming pageant June 6 - and trying to find a dress, Vetter has scheduled speaking engagements to educate people in her community about Lyme disease.

She will speak at the senior center in Douglas on April 7 and visit Converse County schools throughout the month of April.

"I am hoping to help specific people find out they have Lyme (disease)," Vetter said. "I know there are people in my town who have Lyme disease."

Maybe she can bring some peace (of mind) to some people in Wyoming.

Contact health reporter Allison Rupp at (307) 266-0534 or allison.rupp@trib.com.

Tick patrol

Though you can't catch Lyme disease from ticks in Wyoming, health officials say you should still protect yourself from tick bites to prevent other common tick-borne illnesses.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and Colorado tick fever are found in Wyoming ticks.

Plus, Lyme disease can be found in ticks in many other popular summer camping destinations across the country.

Here's how to protect yourself:

* Try to avoid brushy areas - Doctors admit this is not always possible, but ticks prefer to live in wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.

* Wear appropriate attire - If you have to be in these areas wear long pants and sleeves, socks and shoes. Light-colored clothing can help you spot ticks more easily.

* Use insect repellant - Make sure the repellant has 20 to 30 percent DEET in it and spray on all exposed skin and clothing. Take extra precautions in May, June and July.

* Check for ticks - Even if you are just working in the yard, it is a good idea to check yourself for ticks before returning inside.

* Remove ticks carefully - If you do find a tick on you, use tweezers to remove it where it is attached to the skin.

* Call your doctor - If you notice a rash, especially one that looks like a bull's-eye, contact a doctor.

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