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Who's afraid of the big, bad tick?

Man's recent bout with Lyme inspires him to spread the word about the disease

Man's recent bout with Lyme inspires him to spread the word about the disease

August 31, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

KEEDYSVILLE -- Each morning, 75-year-old Bonnard Morgan heads out to the woods armed to the teeth against the blacklegged tick, an enemy barely the size of a penciled-in period.

He covers his arms and legs with rubber boots and rubber gloves to block ticks' access to his flesh. The parts not covered in rubber are covered in light-colored cotton, enabling him to easily spot a rogue tick. All this in addition to a brimmed straw hat and good coating of bug spray.

"These ticks, they try to eat me to pieces," Morgan says.

As a carrier of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, the blacklegged tick threatens with its bite, especially if it picks you to be its blood meal -- a feast it only gets three times in its two-year life span.

Earlier this summer, a tick chose Morgan.

Morgan was recently diagnosed with Lyme, the second time he's had the disease.

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Health officials say people like Morgan, who live in places with lots of trees, and those who have a passion for outdoors are at a greater risk for getting Lyme disease. Symptoms begin with a target-shaped rash but can lead to heart and nervous system problems. The disease is treatable with antibiotics, but sometimes the symptoms can linger long after the treatment.

Officials interviewed by The Herald-Mail suspect many cases of Lyme go unreported and the condition is more prevalent than statistics show.

But Morgan says he refuses to be defeated by a bug. Instead of giving up his passion for his Keedysville-area property, which he described as "tick heaven," he is urging people to be more responsible.

CDC officials: Maryland ranks
high on Lyme disease list

Maryland ranks among the top 10 states in cases of Lyme disease, according to Dr. Paul Mead, a medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For every 100,000 people living in the U.S. in 2007, 9 of them had Lyme disease, according to the most recent CDC data available. In Maryland, the rate was 45.8 per 100,000.

Rod A. MacRae, spokesman for the Washington County Health Department, provided state and county data for 2008. According to MacRae, Washington County's 2008 Lyme disease rates were at 37.1 per 100,000; Maryland's rate was 39.3.

Washington County labs report positive cases to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which provides the data to the CDC, MacRae says.

Morgan still waiting on test results

Morgan, proprietor of Morgan Farms and Rentals, owns hundreds of acres of land, much of which is covered with trees. He can't say for sure, but he's confident he probably picked up Lyme while working outdoors.

He says the first time he had Lyme disease was the summer of 2007. He had a bout of the chills, but he also had a slight temperature -- which struck him as being abnormal.

"I was horribly sick," Morgan says. "It was worse than the flu."

After three weeks' worth of antibiotics, Morgan says he was fine.

But this year, in late June, he says he felt those familiar symptoms come back. "I wasn't sure because this thing hit me hard and fast," Morgan says.

By July, he learned that he again had Lyme. At press time, he had finished up antibiotic treatments and was awaiting results to see if he had been cured.

More forest, more deer, more Lyme

Data show that eastern states like Maryland have more cases of Lyme disease because they have more forests and more deer. The connection is not clear, becuase deer are immune to Lyme and do not transmit the disease. Mead said it is known that small mammals like shrews and field mice do carry Lyme and are common to our region's forests.

Mead said researchers are still studying why Lyme is more prevalent in certain parts of the country than others and why there's a correlation between deer and blacklegged ticks.

Anne Hairston-Strang, a forest hydrologist with MDNR, cited a 2002 report to say that 41 percent of the state's 6.2 million acres is covered by trees. In Washington County, trees cover 40 percent of the county's nearly 300,000 acres.

Hairston-Strang said the state was finalizing a report with more recent data, and that the actual number of wooded acres today would be lower, as people build more roads and houses.

Trees play a very important role in Maryland's ecosystem, said MDNR forester Robert Felt. Trees filter rain and protect the soil, contributing to our water quality. "When you start taking that way, you can alter how our ecosystem functions," Felt said, which means things start to die.

Despite Lyme, Morgan won't let passion die

For some, a Lyme disease diagnosis means spending less time outdoors, since ticks like to cloister themselves beneath leaves on the forest floor and seek shade among long blades of grass, occasionally seeking out warm flesh when hunger calls.

But not Morgan, who plants nearly 3,000 trees a year on his property.

Environmental preservation is a passion Morgan has nurtured since his youth days working the land in Boonsboro. He also has studied forestry at Penn State, Mont Alto.

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