Toxin From Tick Bite Paralyses Girl, Stumps Physicians
WebMD News Archive
Jan. 12, 2000 (Washington) -- While it is known that certain ticks carry
Lyme disease, the common wood tick can cause paralysis and even death if it is
not promptly removed. That's the warning from doctors who treated a child in
the hospital for two days before a tenacious physician-in-training discovered
the eight-legged cause of the child's worsening condition. The child quickly
recovered after the tick was removed. Writing in the Jan. 13 issue of
TheNew England Journal of Medicine, the physicians describe the
devastating effects of the tick bite.
The affected child was a six-year-old girl. In June 1998, she began
complaining of a tingling sensation in her fingers, and within six hours was
staggering when she walked. The following day she could not walk without help
and was taken to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. By this time, about
30 hours had passed since her symptoms first appeared.
Once at the hospital, she underwent chest X-rays, MRIs of her head and neck,
and other tests that revealed no abnormalities. Still her condition continued
to worsen. Her speech was slurred, her arms and legs were becoming paralyzed
and she could barely sit up. The physicians thought she had Guillain-Barré
syndrome, a collection of symptoms that include sudden paralysis. There is no
cure for this syndrome, and those who have it may suffer weakness for years
after the initial episode. Treatment for this disorder includes plasmapheresis,
in which blood is removed and returned to the patient, minus the plasma
At that time Carrie Davis Smith, MD, was in her third year of four-year
training to be a pediatrician. She tells WebMD that she was in the child's room
as preparations were being made for the plasmapheresis, and suggested that a
tick may be the cause of the paralysis. She recalled dogs can harbor wood ticks
and remembered that the child's grandmother had said how much she enjoyed
playing with the family pooch. Smith was told that someone had already checked
the child and found nothing, but she was undaunted.
Using the small black comb that is standard issue with other toiletries
given to patients, Smith went section by section through the girl's hair.
Stunning her colleagues, Smith discovered an engorged female tick stuck on the
left side of the child's scalp.
"I think I yelled, 'Hey, y'all!' when I found it," Smith tells
WebMD. "Then I got all excited. We paged Dr. Felz and he came running up
and helped us take it off." Michael W. Felz, MD -- who has researched
tick-borne diseases for a decade and runs a national tick identification
registry -- first photographed the tick, and then kept it in a warmed petri
dish in his office.