GAITHERSBURG, MD.— When fibrosis hardened Pat Dickinson's lungs in late 2004, doctors struggled to isolate her illness. Two
years later, the 55-year-old dog owner credits a veterinarian's education for avoiding a lung transplant and even death.
Cheating death: Pat Dickinson credits her veterinarian for recognizing the tick-borne disease that almost claimed her life
along with her dog, Barbie. The case is helping to mobilize veterinarians in a push to bring the threat to the forefront of
It turns out Dickinson was positive for Babesia, Ehrlichia and Lyme disease, only diagnosed after Dr. Wendy Walker, a Washington
DC-area DVM, prompted her to get tested. And while the story might seem remarkable, it's not far-fetched.
When it comes to human medicine, experts say tick-borne diseases are often overlooked, misdiagnosed and never addressed. Now
the once-understated phenomenon is receiving national attention.
Veterinary scientists say disease-carrying ticks are migrating like never before, with populations bolstered by warmer temperatures,
rising deer populations and reforestation. At the same time, Congress is jumping on the awareness bandwagon. Federal legislation
seeks to establish prevention, education and research regarding tick-borne diseases by establishing the Tick-Borne Diseases
Advisory Committee, a myriad of federal agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services. HR 3427 and S 1479 calls
for developing diagnostic tests and surveillance that requires the reporting of human cases to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC). It also seeks $20 million through 2010 for research, prevention and educational materials, the legislation
Spreading the word: Dr. Wendy Walker, of Olney, Md., advocates testing when it comes to client cases of tick-borne disease.
"You have to look beyond the Lyme," she says.
But government watchdogs like the American Veterinary Medical Association's Dr. Mark Lutschaunig say the bills, originally
introduced in 2005, are saddled by an overworked Congress busy with an election year. "It would be difficult to see this passed
at this point," the Governmental Relations Division director contends.
That news hasn't slowed Walker, who like a handful of her colleagues, is on a mission to educate the public as well as professionals
in human medicine. The small animal practitioner says she's seen at least six clients go undiagnosed with tick-borne diseases.
And while she attempts to lobby Congress, it appears the Maryland governor's office is interested in joining Walker's efforts
to raise awareness.
"My concern began a year ago when we started having to tell clients to get tested for Ehrlichia," says Walker, owner of Town
and Country Animal Clinic in Olney, Md., and president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association. "This is serious because
we're not just talking about Lyme anymore. The problem is the medical community doesn't have the testing, knowledge and education
that veterinarians have on tick-borne diseases. I can't believe how many clients I have who are debilitated for life. It shouldn't
be up to us to diagnose them."
On the forefront
But that's just what's happening, says Dr. Edward Breitschwerdt, professor and head of North Carolina State University's vector-borne
disease diagnostic lab. An expert in tick-borne diseases, he's attempting to build a coalition of veterinary experts to represent
and address companion animal diseases, especially zoonotic agents.
On alert: Veterinarians like Dr. Wendy Walker are pushing lawmakers to enact tick-borne disease awareness campaigns.
"In veterinary medicine we don't have a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for animals," he says. "We really don't
have an infrastructure for companion animal infectious disease or for researchers to work on them."