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Experts Ticked Off: What's Best for Lyme Disease?

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

July 3, 2000 -- As public concern about Lyme disease continues to mount, doctors and public health officials disagree about diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of the tick-borne illness. But after several warm winters, consensus is sorely needed for the 16,000 new cases expected this year.

Transmitted by ticks from infected deer, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that's especially prevalent in the northeast and north-central U.S. Many of those bitten develop a red rash that looks like a bulls-eye and flu-like symptoms for up to a week. Often the cause isn't recognized, and the disease can progress and become chronic, causing destruction of joints, heart problems, neurological problems, and other serious complications.

Blood tests are used to screen for the condition, but the results often vary, even when conducted at Lyme disease specialty labs. For this reason, some doctors say that positive results should be considered accurate only if there are clear indications of the disease, like the bulls-eye rash. Other doctors contend that Lyme disease can be present even when the results are negative.

When screening tests are inconclusive, a more precise test called the Western blot test is conducted with the same blood sample, according to early Lyme disease expert Michael Felz, MD, an associate professor of family medicine at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta.

Last fall, a new blood test was shown to be a reliable indicator of active disease, correctly identifying 95% of those with Lyme disease. The new test also detects the infection much sooner, according to lead study author Steven Schutzer, MD, an associate professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Early detection, within 6-12 months, improves patient outcomes significantly. Lyme disease can be treated effectively with antibiotics, "but the longer you wait, the harder it is to treat," says infectious diseases specialist Sam Donta, MD, director of the Lyme Disease Center and professor of medicine at Boston University.

Many patients are successfully treated in just four to eight weeks with the antibiotic doxycycline. "Four to five years after diagnosis, most of those treated [early on] with antibiotics report the same [lack] of symptoms as those who never had Lyme disease," says lead study author Eugene Shapiro, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine.

And yet a few patients may develop "post-Lyme disease syndrome," which resembles another disease known as fibromyalgia, says rheumatologist Nancy Shadick, MD, MPH, director of the Lyme Disease Center at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, and poor concentration and memory, but some doctors don't recognize the symptoms of the chronic syndrome.

This issue is at the heart of the debate over long-term antibiotic therapy, frequently prescribed for several years. Proponents say that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease can bore deeply into tissue, evading initial treatment and remaining infectious. Skeptics say that the condition isn't fatal, but adverse effects from long-term antibiotics can be. Over the last several months, physicians in both camps have answered to state medical boards on the issue.

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