RI struggling to battle Lyme disease as cases climb

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lyme disease affects hundreds of Rhode Islanders each year, and chronic cases can be debilitating. But Eyewitness News has learned Rhode Island is struggling to battle the dangerous tick-borne illness.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, the number of reported Lyme disease cases in Rhode Island continues to climb, with 904 people contracting the disease in 2015 alone. That’s in stark contrast to mosquito-borne illnesses West Nile Virus and EEE, which combined for a total of seven reported cases in Rhode Island from 2010 to 2015.

Despite those numbers, Rhode Island has spent nearly eight times as much on mosquito abatement programs this year ($78,000) as on education and outreach for Lyme disease ($10,000).

“It’s much harder than spraying for mosquitoes,” explains infectious diseases physician Dr. Timothy Flanigan. “We don’t know really how to decrease the population of ticks effectively.”

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FACT SHEET: Vital information about ticks and the diseases they carry »

The director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, Thomas Mather, says the center has attempted several methods of tick control, but the strategy with the most success is too expensive for most communities.

Raising Awareness

Meanwhile, one Rhode Island patient is sharing his harrowing experience with Lyme disease in hopes of raising awareness of the dangerous illness, which is often difficult to diagnose.

“There needs to be more outreach. I don’t think there’s enough of that and I hope I can change that,” says recent URI graduate Dan Lennon.

Lennon ran marathons, did the Blessing of the Fleet every year, and was also on the hunt for a new job — until his world got turned upside down.

“So I never saw a tick bite, to be honest with you,” explains Lennon. “I just started feeling tired, achy … I was having trouble standing on my feet.”

Confused as to what was happening, he saw multiple doctors, but none could pinpoint what was wrong with him.

“I saw 20 different specialists over two-and-a-half years, including at some of the best hospitals in Boston, and I still came up empty,” Lennon recalled.

“They kept saying, ‘be grateful that you don’t have MS, be grateful that you don’t have ALS.’ And I was. But, I still didn’t feel like myself, so I didn’t know what to do.”

It would finally be in Connecticut — the state where Lyme disease was first recognized — where Lennon was ultimately diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease.

“Not only did I have Lyme, but I had two co-infections that were deadly. And it wasn’t until I treated that that I started to get my health back,” says Lennon.

Acute Lyme can usually be cured in a month, but the road to recovery for chronic Lyme is typically much longer. For Lennon, it has included months of intravenous antibiotics, mountains of medication, and hours of extra sleep, all of which chipped away at his everyday life.

“Socially,” Lennon explained, “it’s completely isolating, it’s unbelievable.”

But Lennon tells us he is grateful the disease was diagnosed when it was.

“There’s a lot of people that aren’t getting better. If I went another couple of years, I don’t know where I would be, truly.”

More Research Needed

Dr. Timothy Flanigan says tick-borne illnesses often go unrecognized with symptoms that are similar to the flu.

More Lyme Resources: 

Tick Encounter Resource Center »

RI Department of Health »

Centers for Disease Control »

“Our tests for Lyme are helpful, but they’re not perfect,” Dr. Flanigan tells Eyewitness News. “And so early on you can have a negative test even. And so it’s important that all of the care providers in the state be aware of Lyme and other tick-borne illness and often times treat it early.”

Dr. Flanigan did not treat Lennon, but he believes there needs to be more research done through clinical trials to help develop better testing and treatment for Lyme. He believes it may take researchers longer to find a cure for chronic Lyme than it took to find a way to stop HIV from replicating.

“We don’t have a cure, but we can put HIV in total remission by using our HIV medications,” says Dr. Flanigan. “We do not do as well with patients that have chronic Lyme because they continue to suffer the symptoms.”

Nationwide, the CDC estimates that 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year.