Originally created 08/19/00

Soldiers contract tick disease

Seven soldiers at Fort Gordon have contracted the tick-borne illness Rocky Mountain spotted fever, with four cases confirmed in the past week, officials said.

None of the soldiers needed to be hospitalized, and all are doing well and are expected to make a full recovery, said Col. Ted Epperly, deputy commander of clinical services at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center. Though there probably have not been this many cases before at the base, it may be that clinicians are just catching a disease that was not diagnosed in the past, Dr. Epperly said.

The Army is testing ticks, and officials are urging the public not to panic but to be more aware and take precautions.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is caused by a strain of the Rickettsia bacteria spread by the American dog tick or the wood tick. If caught early, it is treatable with antibiotics such as doxycycline, said Dr. Keith Woeltje, an infectious-disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics.

Because the definitive diagnostic tests can take awhile, people who have spent time outdoors and show the symptoms probably should start on the antibiotics, Dr. Woeltje said.

"I think it is frequently treated but rarely confirmed," said Michael Felz, a family physician and noted tick expert at MCG.

It is not contagious, and can't be passed from person to person, Dr. Epperly said.

The symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting and a rash on the ankles or wrists within three to five days of contraction. In more severe cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever that are left untreated, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the infected die from progressive organ failure, Dr. Epperly said.

The Fort Gordon cases were confirmed by antibody tests, Dr. Epperly said. In five of the seven cases, he said, the soldiers picked up the ticks at the base, either at the Fort Gordon Recreation Area or at Training Area 37. There was no information on where the other two picked up the ticks, Dr. Epperly said.

There have been fewer than five cases reported to the state Division of Public Health this year, although 24 were reported last year.

Six of the seven Fort Gordon cases were caught by a physician's assistant who noted the symptoms and ordered the blood tests, Dr. Epperly said.

"It is a very good catch really," he said. "It's not that common of an illness."

Eisenhower officials have contacted primary care and emergency room providers to be aware of the symptoms, said Lt. Col. Julie Martin, deputy commander for administration at the medical center.

The Army sent a group from the Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, based in Maryland, who did a "tick drag," pulling a sheet through the brush in the suspected areas to gather a sample of ticks, Lt. Col. Martin said. The ticks will be examined to see whether they are the species that carry the bacteria.

The captured ticks will be ground up and tested to see how many are infected, Dr. Epperly said. The results should be known in 10 days to two weeks, Lt. Col. Martin said.

"If it's under 10 percent, then it's a normal rate (of infection)," Lt. Col. Martin said. "If it's above 10 percent, some other measures would have to be taken."

Eisenhower officials weren't sure what the corrective action would be.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.


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