Lyme disease cases on the rise
(Original publication: June 11, 2004)

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON — Fourteen-year-old Lindsay Hammons has spent a good part of the past year in bed with an intravenous antibiotic line attached to her arm. She regularly visits a rheumatologist, an endocrinologist, a pediatrician, an ophthalmologist and a neurologist. She has had a chronic headache for a year.

Lindsay says her childhood has been ruined by Lyme disease, which humans contract from infected deer ticks.

"Our life revolves around her illness," said Cynthia Altman, Lindsay's mother, who gave up work as a video editor for "60 Minutes" to look after her daughter when she contracted Lyme disease in 1999. "The illness is unpredictable. We live day to day. It drains the family."

As prime Lyme disease season approaches in late spring and summer, statistics show that reported Lyme disease cases have been rising in the northern suburbs. Cases rose from 340 to 565 in Westchester between 1999 and 2003; 169 to 308 in Putnam County; and 43 to 169 in Rockland. In 43 states where Lyme disease is found, cases rose from 17,029 in 2001 to 23,763 in 2002, according to the latest statistics from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of cases could actually be from five to 10 times higher, because the disease is seriously underreported, according to the CDC.

The increase has local and federal representatives working to deal with the scourge.

• The town of Greenburgh has formed a citizens' committee to recommend steps to deal with the rising deer population and the resulting increase in Lyme disease and deer-related automobile accidents. Altman is the co-chair of the committee, which includes residents from Hastings-on-Hudson, Irvington, Greenburgh, Dobbs Ferry and Elmsford.

• U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly, R-Katonah, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives earlier this month that would increase funding for research into Lyme and create an advisory committee to help in the prevention and control of the disease.

"Lyme disease has climbed to its highest level on record in the United States, and New York ranks first nationally in the number of cases reported," said Kelly, who is chair of the Congressional Lyme Disease Caucus. "We have to do a better job of letting people know that there are ways they can reduce their risk of tick-borne diseases."

Northern Westchester — Yorktown, Somers, Bedford, North Salem, Lewisboro, Pound Ridge and North Castle — much of which Kelly represents, has the highest rate of Lyme disease in Westchester.

The Northeastern states and Minnesota account for 95 percent of Lyme disease cases nationally. It is most common in late spring and during summer months when ticks are most active and people are frequently outdoors. Children between the ages of 5 and 9 are most susceptible to the disease, according to David Weld, director of the Somers-based American Lyme Disease Foundation

People infected with Lyme disease typically get a bull's-eye rash accompanied by high-grade fever, splitting headaches and muscle and joint aches. If untreated, they can also develop swelling in large joints, like the knee. Some, however, have no visible symptoms, and the disease manifests itself through fever, muscle and joint pain. This makes diagnosis difficult.

'My life is slipping away'

While most Lyme disease patients recover after four weeks of antibiotic treatment, some, like Lindsay, can get very ill from the sickness, according to Dr. Charles Ray Jones, a pediatric adolescent medicine specialist in New Haven, Conn., who treats 6,000 children with Lyme disease from across the United States and overseas, including Hammons.

"One-third of those who get Lyme disease could be very seriously ill," said Jones. "It's a pretty sizable population."

A study conducted by Valhalla-based New York Medical College showed nearly two-thirds of Westchester patients who contracted Lyme disease continued to have symptoms after three to four weeks of antibiotic treatment, though not all the cases were as serious as Lindsay's, Jones said.

When Lindsay first contracted Lyme disease, she showed no symptoms. Because she had no visible rash, doctors treated her for problems that appeared to emerge for no obvious reason, like pain in the jaw and, later, swelling in the arm. Her parents had her tested twice for Lyme disease. One of the tests came back positive.

Lindsay remained on intravenous antibiotics for six weeks and seemed to recover. But when treatment was stopped, her symptoms reappeared. During the next five years, Lindsay changed doctors several times because some believed they did not have an effective treatment for her, and others said her illness was psychosomatic. Insurance companies refused to pay after a while because there was no consensus among doctors about the nature of her illness.

Lindsay is hooked to the drip for approximately three hours in the morning and three in the evening. The eighth-grader has an abbreviated school day at Farragut Middle School, with additional tutoring at home.

She plays no sport because such activity leaves her dizzy. She can't read for more than a few minutes because the pages appear blurry.

"I feel my life is slipping away through my fingers," Hammons said bitterly as she lay propped up in her darkened bedroom on a recent morning with an intravenous drip attached to her arm. In her brightly colored teenager's room, dolls and books vie with syringes and medicine jars for space on her bookshelf.

She wants to be a children's doctor when she grows up.

Concerned about the deer in her neighborhood, Altman spoke to the Greenburgh Town Board in March about the hazards of Lyme disease and how it has affected her family. Hastings falls within the town of Greenburgh. Her concerns, and similar complaints by other residents, prompted the town to institute a committee to investigate the deer problem and to offer a solution.

"We have been getting complaints since last summer," said Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, who is asking residents to fill out a questionnaire about their experience with deer and Lyme disease. "It's now getting to a point where it has become a crisis."

Weld, of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, says the rise in Lyme disease is closely linked to the increasing deer population in the region. A hundred years ago, when most of New York's northern suburbs were open fields, farmers shot deer for food, which kept their numbers down. Now, with restrictions on killing deer and expanding development in wooded areas, the deer and human habitat have intermingled, creating a dangerous environment with rising cases of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, a rise in car accidents and defoliation of shrubs and trees by deer looking for food.

A female deer can support up to 2,000 ticks at a time, and each tick can lay up to a million eggs, many of which can become infected and harm humans, Weld says.

While, prevention may be the best way to deal with ticks — experts recommend daily physical examination of children and pets for ticks, keeping lawns mowed and spraying property with pesticides — the two most reliable ways of removing ticks from deer and rodents are the Four-Poster Deer Treatment Bait Station and the Max Force Tick Management System. Both methods are baits that employ Fipronil, an insecticide, to kill ticks. New York state, however, hasn't approved the two systems because of environmental concerns.

Meanwhile, Lindsay continues to battle her illness.

"I'm told over time she will get better," said Altman. Her doctor "tells us 'patience and perseverance.' "

Reach Hema Easley at or 914-696-8229. Reach Hema Easley at or 914-696-8229.