Column: Not your ordinary tick; Watch out for a new strain in Minnesota, Wisconsin


My columns generally deal with more existential threats, St. Croix Valley environmental and infrastructure concerns. However, in view of the alarming news of world-wide outbreaks of life-threatening insect-born infectious diseases, I’m moved to alert readers to a developing situation in this region.

According to a recent story by Rich Kremer of Wisconsin Public Radio, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services is investigating new cases of an unnamed tick-borne disease only found in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“While the disease doesn’t have an official name, researchers are calling it Ehrlichia Muris-Like, or EML, because of its resemblance to a strain found in parts of Europe and Asia,” the story says. “Diep Hoang Johnson, the state’s vectorborne epidemiologist, said the symptoms are similar to those associated with Lyme disease.”

Since one of the first confirmed cases was discovered in Eau Claire five years ago, Kremer’s article says, 28 cases have been confirmed in Wisconsin, and now the bacteria is turning up in more ticks around the state of Wisconsin.

I’ve lived close to nature most of my life, sometimes by choice and at other times in the course of military and government service. It’s my lifestyle, and despite advancing age, I accept the adversities and challenges that are outweighed by the quality of life I’ve never found in any other environment. Now, in semi-retirement, the past 15 years in this northern Wisconsin wilderness have been all I could wish for in my golden years. Still, as always, one has good days and bad.

Two months ago I was well on my way to recovering from a March encounter with a black bear, an early riser from hibernation that surprised my dogs and me as I opened the kennel door. The dogs survived, but I was pretty well chewed up and ended up in the Grantsburg Hospital emergency room.

Mid-June, at sunset outdoors with my happy hour bag of popcorn, scotch and water, watching the swans, loons and geese on the lake performing their spring mating ritual, I was bitten by one of the new tick variety. Too tired from practicing retirement all day, I failed to do my regular body examination of the places “where the sun doesn’t shine.” I fed my dogs and turned in.

Major oversight: I awakened the next morning with the telltale tick bite rosette, itching and swelling on my right flank. As is characteristic of this new variety of super tiny ticks, not much larger than a pin head, it had burrowed well into the epidermis, and with my head on a swivel, with aging, failing eyesight, tweezers in hand there was no way, other than small parts, to remove it. As I was already on a VA antibiotic prescription for past bouts with toxic chemical agent exposure, malaria, rabies exposure, snake bites and seven years earlier, Lymes’ Disease, I thought, “What the hell, I’m covered.” Another serious mistake.

My son and I had scheduled a Father’s Day skydiving event for the 14th of June. I knew I wasn’t feeling well. We had to postpone the jump due to weather — just as well because I did not have the strength and balance to meet the pre-jump drills.

Things went downhill from there. I awoke a day later with full upper body paralysis and couldn’t even hold a pen. I thought I may have had a stroke, not uncommon at my age. But I’m not given to go on sick call with a hangnail.

Driving uneasily two days later, hoping to make it, I finally arrived for an appointment with my VA doctor. The tick remnants were surgically removed, and I was tested for what’s now referred to as tick paralysis. Over the last several weeks I’ve had additional sessions in the emergency room. (They now know me there by my first name). In my 80 years, I’ve never been so ill and incapacitated.

It’s amazing this tiny pest could pack the amount of toxin with the wallop it has. While the medical community seems somewhat perplexed, the consensus is that it affects the human central nervous system within 12-14 hours after penetration of the epidermis. Doxycycline has been the standard antibiotic for treatment of what is commonly known as Lyme disease, but the new infectious toxin may be resistant to that drug. I am now on a regimen of Ciprofloxacin, a much more powerful antibiotic. Both of these drugs have significant side effects.

The vulnerability of pets, domestic animals and wild life to this infection remains unclear.

From personal experience, these are the symptoms and conditions you can expect, in some case even after prompt professional treatment:

• In general, flu like symptoms that come on rapidly.

• Headache, loss of appetite, malaise, overwhelming fatigue, breathlessness. Body/joint stiffness and paralysis.

• Dizziness when bending or getting up from a seated or prone position. Lightheadedness, balance difficulties.

• Vision abnormalities — depth perception, eye-hand coordination, focus.

• Severe dehydration, frequent dark urine and constipation.

• Sleeplessness accompanied by unusual dreams.

I can readily understand how an elderly person or someone with chronic physical issues might perish from this disease, absent immediate medical intervention.

I can only advise, if you have any indication that you’ve been bitten — you will know it within a few hours — get to a doctor ASAP.

Bradley Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. He is an Army Ranger CIA, DEA veteran. Now semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wis. His book “Zenith Secret” was released in November 2013 by Rosedog Books.

  • Jeff Levy

    A summary of scientifically-validated information concerning Lyme Disease and other tick-borne diseases is available in video format that can be viewed in less than 5 minutes: “What Is Lyme Disease: An evidence-based exploration of the concepts and common medical misconceptions of Lyme disease”