Helen Yarborough suffered years of mystery illnesses, only to discover a tick bite 13 years ago was to blame. Catherine Scott reports.
About 3,000 people in the UK contract Lyme disease every year, and yet few people have heard of it in this country.
Now a Yorkshire teacher is trying to raise awareness of the disease and how to avoid contracting it in the first place.
Lyme disease is transmitted by the bite of an infected tick which are often found in bracken in places such as the North Yorkshire Moors. Walkers, especially people with dogs, are at increased risk.
Keen walker Helen Yarborough had no idea she had suffered an infected tick bite until 13 years after she was bitten.
“It was in 1997,” explains the special needs teacher, “when I started to feel flu-like symptoms. It went on and off for a few weeks and then I found that I couldn’t walk and I was rushed to hospital. They did some tests and couldn’t find anything and sent me home.”
For the next five years, she suffered a host of different symptoms, from severe fatigue and not being able to get out of bed for months and needing a wheelchair to get out of the house.
“Doctors thought I had ME,” says the mum of three from Harrogate.
“But there were days when I felt absolutely fine and then, after about five years, I started to feel better and was able to return to teaching, even though it was only part-time.”
Then, two-and-half years ago she started to feel unwell again.
“It was as if it was coming back again.” Helen was forced to give up the work she loved.
This time, however, she had a doctor who wanted to look at all her symptoms together rather than individually.
Helen then remembered seeing a programme on Lyme disease.
“I remember thinking that sounds like what I had, but then I forgot all about it when I got better.”
She decided to do further research on the internet and came across a picture of a person with a tick bite.
“Then I remembered getting a similar bite a few weeks before I started to feel ill while I was playing in bracken with the children at Brimham Rocks. I hadn’t made the connection because I didn’t know anything about ticks or about Lyme disease.”
Lyme disease can affect multiple body systems and produce a range of symptoms which is why it can be difficult to diagnose.
Not all patients with Lyme disease will have all symptoms, and many of the symptoms are not specific to Lyme disease.
The usual incubation period from infection to the onset of symptoms is a few days to a few weeks but can be much longer.
Generally, the first sign of infection is a circular rash. which usually appears within three to 30 days of infection. The rash often has a characteristic “bull’s-eye” appearance, with a central red spot surrounded by clear skin that is ringed by an expanding red rash.
However, not everyone one presents with the rash, or it can be hidden under hair or in an inaccessible place. Rashes can also vary from the classic “bull’s-eye”.
Along with the rash, a person may experience flu-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, headache, and muscle aches. Left untreated, symptoms of the initial illness may go away on their own. But in some people, like Helen, the infection can spread to other parts of the body.
Helen has been taking antibiotics since July last year to try to control and, hopefully, cure Lyme disease.
“I was getting a fever every few weeks which was like having flu every month. I haven’t had a fever for seven weeks, which is great news.”
Helen now wants to raise awareness of the danger from ticks and Lyme disease. She has joined forces with tick-borne disease charity BADA-UK (Borreliosis and Associated Diseases Awareness-UK) whose patron is survival specialist Ray Mears, a fellow sufferer of Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is transmitted via the bite of an infected tick and can lead to serious complications including damage to the nervous system, joints, heart and other tissues.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the UK and the Northern Hemisphere. Lyme disease areas of the UK highlighted by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) are: Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs, parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, Thetford Forest, the Lake District, the Yorkshire Moors and the Scottish Highlands.
www.bada-uk.org or ww.tickpreventionweek.org