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President, area resident bring illness into Lyme-light

(Recently), President Bush brought national attention to Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness in the U.S. He was promptly treated with antibiotics after he noticed a red rash on his leg following a bicycle ride.

Presidential lesson: Know the basics about Lyme disease and get antibiotic treatment without delay if you are infected. Early treatment is essential for a cure.

Closer to home, Tami Wiedensmith of Sherwood was bit by an infected tick in Oregon in 2002, but delayed diagnosis and treatment led to years of suffering. The delay began when she was told by physicians that Lyme disease did not occur in Oregon even though she showed classic early symptoms. Ultimately, she traveled to see an out-of-state doctor. After three years of increasing debility from pain, seizures, fatigue, vertigo, loss of muscle function and more, she finally got the help she deserved.

The tick that transmits Lyme disease is found in Oregon, particularly west of the Cascades. It is active when the temperature is above 40 degrees F and clings to grasses and leaves waiting to climb onto a passer-by for a blood meal. Tiny as a poppy seed, it is easily overlooked; most people who develop Lyme never see the infecting vector.

The first tell-tale sign of illness can be a rash at the bite site, but the painless, expanding mark only occurs about half the time. If you notice one-like the President-the illness is caught at the best time for full recovery.

An expanding ring-like red rash may start 3 to 30 days after the tick bite, but other types occur as well. It fades over time even without treatment and can last a month or more. Check all over the body for ticks and rashes, including more hidden areas like the scalp and groin.

An early flu-like illness is an indication of spreading infection. Often this is dismissed as 'summer flu.' The aches and pains will pass, but the bacteria continue to invade different areas of the body. The longer the infection is allowed to continue unchecked, the harder it is to cure.

If left untreated or undertreated, the Lyme bacteria spreads throughout the body and can lead to serious problems, particularly in muscles and joints, heart and the nervous system. Regaining health at this point can be a difficult process and is not guaranteed. The disease then becomes tricky to diagnose because it can mimic other illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, cardiac problems, and neurological disorders like M.S. Laboratory testing, unfortunately, is problematic, so a doctor has to be willing to do a thorough clinical workup and use test results only as a part of the evaluation.

Following two years of intensive treatment, Tami has regained 70 percent of her former life. She still struggles with what that tiny tick did to her and the results of withheld medical treatment. Despite it all, she is dedicated to spreading awareness about Lyme disease to prevent as much unnecessary suffering as possible.

Tami would like Oregonians to know that Lyme is a real health threat here and that timely diagnosis and rapid treatment are essential to getting well quickly. Anyone who is active outdoors - from gardening to biking to hunting to camping to berry picking - is at risk, so arm yourself with knowledge and enjoy your outdoor experiences.

Lower the likelihood of tick bite by using tick repellents, tucking pants into socks, avoiding tall grasses - walk in the center of paths - wearing light-colored clothing (you'll see ticks easier), but daily tick checks should always be done after an outing in the countryside.

Rita L. Stanley, Ph.D., is co-author of 'Confronting Lyme Disease: What Patient Stories Teach Us.' She lives in Southwest Portland.