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New Tick-Borne Disease on the Rise in Some Areas

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Only about one in 10 infected people are thought to get symptoms. But more than half of those who do require hospitalization, and up to 5% will die if not treated promptly. The good news is that the disease can be cured by prompt treatment with the antibiotic doxycycline.

Still, another conference presentation reports that ehrlichiosis may cause long-lasting health effects. Edward Belongia, MD, and colleagues collected basic health information and blood samples from 85 patients with the HGE form of the disease an average of 24 months after they first became ill. They compared these findings to those of 102 people who had not had ehrlichiosis, matched for age and sex.

People who had supposedly recovered from ehrlichiosis reported more symptoms than those who never had the disease: 5.4 times more fevers, 4.5 times more chills, twice as much fatigue, and three times more sweats. They also reported significantly more bodily pain and rated their relative health lower than the normal people. But there was no difference in physical function, impairment of daily activities, general health, or vitality.

"One possibility is that people do have chronic HGE infection," Belongia tells WebMD. He says that it may be that even once they are treated, Ehrlichia lingers in the body's tissues. However, Belongia -- a researcher at Marshfield Medical Research Foundation in Madison, Wis. -- notes that there are other explanations. The patients who had HGE once may have been more likely to get HGE again. Or maybe patients who had recently gotten over a serious illness were more sensitive about their health, and thus more likely to report symptoms than other people.

In another conference presentation, Allison Liddell, MD, of Washington University in St. Louis, reported the first case history of a person who got HME twice. The man, a liver-transplant recipient taking drugs that suppress the immune system, came down with the disease in June 1997 and again in May 1999. Both times, he quickly got better after treatment with antibiotics.

Liddell says she doesn't think the immune-suppressing drugs made the man more likely to be infected. "We've now got a large number of patients with HME," she tells WebMD. "I can't say that the immunocompromised patients do any worse."

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