Season of flowers, streams, plagues and Lyme disease |

Season of flowers, streams, plagues and Lyme disease

Sitting on a warm rock, a chipmunk snacks on an apple. A flea from a chipmunk tested positive for plague.
Jim Grant | Tahoe Daily Tribune

The coming of spring also heralds in woodland diseases in Douglas County, namely bubonic plague and Lyme disease.

Plague has always been present in Northern Nevada and the Sierra, found in the adorable chipmunks and squirrels and the tiny fleas that reside on their skin.

In the U.S. there is an average of seven plague cases a year, but as antibiotics are extremely effective against the bacterial disease, death is rare. Men are more often stricken with plague than women.

Most people are infected by interacting with wild rodents, being bitten by an infected flea, or contracting it from their domestic cats. Domestic cats are actually extremely susceptible to plague and can quickly transmit it to their owners.

The last case of plague death in Douglas County was reported in 1979. On Dec. 28, Marguerite Litsinger of Johnson Lane was ruled to have died due to a plague infection, spread by her pet cat.

While plague is an ancient disease that has resided in the hills for eons, Lyme disease is a more recently discovered phenomenon, and is quickly growing as it spreads across the U.S. as infected tics spread it among humans.

The problem with Lyme disease is that it’s fairly rare, and therefore doctors don’t immediately test for it when patients come in with complaints.

The signature indication of Lyme disease is a large red target shaped rash around the bite wound left by the tick.

Antibiotics are given, and in most cases, it clears up the infection.

However, if the patient either does not get treatment in time, or if the treatment doesn’t work, it can lead to late stage Lyme disease.

Lyme disease mimics many illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, depression, mental illness, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Alzheimer’s.

“Lyme disease, which causes the lowering of the immune system in the same manner cancer lowers the immune system, is either totally ignored or laughed at,” said Judith Weeg, president of the Lyme Disease United Coalition.

Cases are still relatively low in Western Nevada. Between 2000 and 2016, 122 cases of Lyme disease were confirmed in Nevada, but only two of those cases were in Douglas County.

According to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, the tick usually has to be attached for at least 36-48 hours before Lyme disease can be transmitted to its host.

Most humans are infected by immature ticks, which are about the size of a poppy seed.

“Infection with Lyme disease can be prevented by avoiding wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter, wearing insect repellent, applying pesticides, reducing tick habitats around the home, and removing ticks promptly after coming indoors by bathing, examining gear and pets, and tumbling clothes in a dryer on high heat,” the department said.