Stalking a lyme copycat

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RALEIGH, N.C.

Reports of Lyme disease in southern states have long puzzled scientists. Every year people from Missouri to Texas to Florida turn up in doctors' offices with the telltale bull's-eye rash and flu-like symptoms. Yet their blood carries no trace of the bacterium that causes Lyme. Now researchers at the North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources have solved the mystery: They've discovered a brand-new disease carried by a southern tick.

Over two summers epidemiologist Kathryn Kirkland and her colleagues monitored teenagers and staff at a summer camp in central North Carolina. After 14 people who'd been bitten by ticks came down with a Lyme-like illness, the researchers analyzed samples of their blood and skin. They also rounded up 1,128 ticks, some removed from campers and some collected from around the camp.

None of the tissue samples yielded evidence of Borrelia burgdorferi, the culprit in Lyme disease. But what persuaded the researchers they were onto something was that virtually none of the ticks were the deer-infesting type that carries Lyme. Most were a species known as lone star ticks.

Kirkland doesn't yet know what organism in these ticks might be responsible for the illness. Other scientists have occasionally found a spiral-shaped bacterium in lone star ticks, but culturing it in a lab for further study has proved difficult.

When diagnosed quickly, the new illness so far has been easily cured with the same antibiotics used to treat Lyme. But Kirkland urges outdoor enthusiasts all around the country to take precautions against bites, since there are many tick-borne diseases and some can be fatal, including rocky mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis.

When venturing out, wear light-colored clothing, tuck pants into socks, use a repellent containing deet, and check yourself for ticks. If symptoms develop after a bite, see a doctor. Whatever bug has gotten under your skin, your odds are best if it's treated early.

LYME COPYCAT

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By Katherine Griffin; Bob Holmes; Mary Purpura and Karmen Butterer

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