Column: Think you have the flu? Check for a tick

An adult deer tick, which are known to carry pathogens causing Lyme disease, babesiosis or anaplasmosis. (Credit: Daniel Gilrein)
An adult deer tick, which are known to carry pathogens causing Lyme disease, babesiosis or anaplasmosis. (Credit: Daniel Gilrein)

“Thank God my wife is such a pain in the a–.”

That was how my brother Chris kicked off our phone conversation Monday, days after our mom had informed me he had been suffering from a 102-degree fever, yet still refusing to see a doctor. 

He relented and got himself to a clinic after a couple days worth of incessant spousal nagging — and a fever that, by then, had reached over 104.

Let it be a lesson to the rest of us in this beautiful corner of the world: It’s tick infested.

But Chris hadn’t removed a blood-engorged tick from his body. He hadn’t gotten any bull’s eye-type rash either, the telltale sign of Lyme disease.

“This thing was the size of a poppy seed,” he said, adding that, at best, it had been on him for just a few hours — not the 24-plus hours he found was required to transmit Lyme.

It turned out the tick-borne illness he was trying to dismiss was the lesser-known anaplasmosis — previously called human granulocytic ehrlichiosis (HGE) — a bacterial infection that attacks the white blood cells and spreads throughout the body.

According to Columbia University Medical Center and other historic accounts, anaplasmosis was first reported in a human in 1990. That patient died within two weeks of being bitten.

The good news is anaplasmosis is easily recognized and treated today, especially in the tick-literate Northeast. Patients are administered doxycycline, the same antidote for Lyme disease, said Dr. Sandeep Gandhi, an infectious disease consultant for Peconic Bay Medical Center. Anaplasmosis, he said, is only fatal in about five percent of cases and runs a distant second to Lyme among the more common tick-borne diseases contracted on Long Island.

Given the year and its environmental factors, about 10 to 12 percent of ticks carry anaplasmosis, compared with the 40 percent of ticks that carry Lyme, he said.

The doctor cautioned that now through summer is peak time for tick populations, and that people spending time outdoors should, in general, “wear white (to better spot the ticks), check themselves, walk in the middle of trails, don’t scrape against low brushes and monitor their pets.”

And understand it could happen to you.

Chris, who got bitten in New Hampshire while either clearing brush away from apple trees on his property or cutting tree limbs near a rock wall — he’s not sure — had never heard of anaplasmosis before. According to the state’s health department, there were 1,689 cases of Lyme (confirmed and probable) in 2013, compared with just 88 cases of anaplasmosis.

The hardest part of his ordeal, he told me, was the stress that came with those moments where he feared he could die from whatever had him shivering and sweating in bed that morning before finally deciding to seek medical help. All because of an insect bite. And his stubbornness.

He now suggests that, aside from taking the proper precautions and/or looking for any signs of Lyme, anyone who experiences flu-like symptoms when it’s not flu season should go see a doctor. Don’t wait for your wife to force you.

Michael White, editorMichael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.