Ticked about Lyme disease

North Potomac family urges county to adopt pesticide program for deer

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Andy Szulinski (left), of Dandux Outdoors, shows Mimi Segal of North Potomac how a deer station his company sells can prevent the spread of Lyme disease. Deer poke their head into the feeder to eat corn and rollers apply a pesticide that kills ticks. Segal is planning a project to kill ticks in her North Potomac neighborhood of Potomac Chase Estates.

The Segal family of North Potomac once considered their expansive backyard, with its swimming pool and wooden playhouse, as a bit of paradise.

But after both Dan and Mimi Segal and three of their four children fell seriously ill due to Lyme disease caused by deer tick bites, it seems more like enemy territory.

‘‘We used to think of our backyard as another room in our house but we don’t go out there much anymore,” said Mimi Segal.

Not since 2000, when the disease known as the ‘‘great masquerader” because it mimics other disorders, began to put the family through a nightmare of symptoms.

It first caused bouts of paralysis that put Mimi into a wheelchair, caused her husband to slip into a coma following surgical treatment, and just last summer, caused debilitating fevers and rashes in their two daughters, ages 7 and 14, and severe joint pain in their son, 17.

A kitchen cabinet is filled with hundreds of bottles of medications, mostly antibiotics. At one time, Dan Segal was taking 120 pills a week to control his symptoms.

‘‘My son Sam is 17 and should be having fun selecting the college of his choice, but he’s had to pick one based on the distance to his Lyme disease doctor,” Mimi Segal said. ‘‘Who knew sitting in your backyard could be a high risk activity?”

That’s why Mimi Segal has talked about the problem at area PTAs and civic associations since last fall. And now she and her husband are kicking off their newly named effort, ‘‘Montgomery County Tick Reduction Program,” in their own neighborhood of 18 years, Potomac Chase Estates.

Working with their HOA, they plan to install deer feeding stations filled with corn throughout the heavily wooded community of 70 homes on about 160 acres.

As deer poke their heads into the boxes to feed, rollers apply a tick-killing pesticide called ‘‘permithrin” to their necks.

‘‘It’s a very low dose, but it goes directly to the tick-infested neck and head and kills adult [tick] females,” she said.

They also want to place ‘‘tick tubes,” biodegradable toilet paper-like tubes filled with permithrin-soaked cotton, around the neighborhood. The tubes attract mice, the disease carriers responsible for infecting ticks with the bacteria.

What does Lyme disease look like?
Lyme disease symptoms appear 3 to 32 days after a tick bite. Most people get a rash that resembles a bulls-eye. Other symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, stiff neck, joint pain and swollen lymph nodes. Without treatment, the heart, nervous system and joints may be affected for years to come. The disease is treated with antibiotics. To prevent the disease, avoid woods and grassy areas. Use tick repellent and wear protective clothing such as long-sleeve shirts and pant legs tucked into socks. Inspect for ticks after being outdoors. Remove ticks with tweezers and then wash the site and hands. Mark calendar to show tick removal. Use tick control products on your pets. The Segals can be contacted about their campaign at 301-948-7272.
‘‘Mice will bring the cotton back to their nests and kill larval ticks,” she said. ‘‘It’s like mice are treating themselves with the lowest amount of chemical needed to do the job.”

Their HOA voted last week to set aside some funds to buy the equipment. Deer stations cost an average of $400 or more and the tubes cost $2 each. Several dozen tubes are needed per acre.

‘‘It’ll take at least two years, but we should be relatively tick-free at the end,” Dan Segal said. ‘‘It comes at a price, but not as high a price as the loss of productivity, health and even lives, caused by this disease.”

The next step in the campaign is to attract the interest—and financial support—of county officials so that the program can eventually be expanded across the county.

‘‘We’d like the county to subsidize the cost of the equipment and use this as a pilot project,” Mimi Segal said. ‘‘An epidemiologist could compare the number of ticks we have here before and after [using the feeders and tubes]. We could also track and survey the disease incidence in the neighborhood.”

In 2005 there were 216 reported cases in the county, a five-fold increase from the 38 reported the year before, according to Christine Lacey, nurse administrator of the Montgomery County disease control program.

‘‘There may well be an increase in Lyme disease,” Lacey said. ‘‘But those numbers could also be reflecting the fact that doctors are doing a better job at diagnosing it and that [my office] has put more effort into tracking and reporting it.”

Statewide reporting of confirmed cases showed a 39 percent increase from 2004 to 2005, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The Segals believe their neighborhood is ‘‘hot spot” for the disease due to the herds of deer roaming their wooded streets.

But they agree with Rob Gibson, natural resource manager for Montgomery County, that killing off deer herds is not the answer.

‘‘Deer are probably responsible for spreading the disease into new areas, but once it’s there, the ticks can live on a variety of other hosts,” Gibson said.

He would encourage communities that feel they have a major problem with ticks to consider projects similar to the one proposed by the Segals. But he does not see the county getting involved any too soon.

‘‘The feeders are expensive and labor intensive to maintain. The number of ticks vary from year to year and place to place, so we’d be shuffling the feeders all over,” he said.

He also encourages homeowners to make simple changes to landscaping, from the use of nets to deter deer to the removal of brush where mice live.

At the Segal home, deer-proof netting now fences off the backyard and the birdfeeders that once attracted mice are empty.

‘‘We needed a safe zone,” Mimi Segal said. ‘‘I check my children for ticks every day, sometimes twice a day. It’s gotten as routine as brushing our teeth.”