My brush with Lyme disease: how tick bites turned family day out to disaster

Our writer was not surprised by last week’s warning about increasing tick-borne infections
Tara Conlan at her home in Bentworth, Sussex, near the New Forest where she contracted Lyme Disease.
Tara Conlan at her home in Bentworth, Sussex, near the New Forest where she contracted Lyme disease. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

Three years ago, a few weeks after a family trip to the New Forest, I started to feel constantly nauseous and tired. A small red patch appeared on my ankle. I turned to the web for some answers, and Google turned up trumps: much to my horror, my symptoms matched some of those for the tick-borne bacterial infection Lyme disease.

My GP was doubtful (we lived in London and I had not noticed any ticks on me) but agreed to a blood test. It came back positive so the rest of my family was tested. My husband and daughter also had it but, ironically, my son – on whom I had spotted a tick – did not. Lyme is like malaria in that you might get bitten by a mosquito but only some of them carry the disease.

Warnings issued last week that Lyme is on the rise – and that the number of cases may be three times higher than estimated – are no surprise to me. When I got it, I was shocked to find how easily it could be transmitted, how unreliable testing for it was, and how awful the consequences were for those who didn’t get the right diagnosis in time.

My symptoms ruined our Christmas holiday and the antibiotics affected my daughter’s health during school exams. But we were fortunate. I subsequently learned that of two others who contracted Lyme in the New Forest, one – a child – was affected neurologically.

Given that the hosts for the New Forest ticks were deer, suffice to say, I no longer felt like crying at the film Bambi and – unpopular opinion alert – I began hoping people would view the deer in Richmond Park not through misty eyes but through sights on a rifle. (I was not alone. A letter to the Timeslast week asked: “If deer are deemed to be a significant threat to human health, and an increase in the cull is thought to be a reasonable solution, then why are we even hesitating?”)

But my research revealed deer to be only part of the problem: the unpalatable truth is that ticks are carried by other animals, including cats, dogs and birds. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society states: “A patient’s residence does not necessarily reflect his or her Lyme disease risk. People travel, pets travel and ticks travel.Migratory birds carry ticks over great distances,” it adds.

You can’t become immune to Lyme – a lesson that leading media analyst Claire Enders learned first-hand. She has had Lyme twice, with the second bout going undiagnosed for a year as her test results gave a false negative. An eloquent businesswoman from a medical Nobel prize-winning US family, she became such an authority on the illness that when she told Jeremy Hunt the NHS website’s Lyme guidance was inadequate, the then health secretary had it updated.

Yet she had to work hard to convince her doctors she had it again: “I was asked if I had a ‘Daily Mail illness’. It was demeaning. I felt devastated by the illness, so to be told it was in my head because the test was negative was awful.”

Enders was unable to walk and suffered nerve damage, but is thankfully better after an 18-month cycle of antibiotics and hydrotherapy.