As a senior editor at Discover Magazine, science journalist Pamela Weintraub had covered myriad scientific dramas throughout her career. But it was her own family’s medical odyssey with Lyme disease — and the book she wrote about it, Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic — that brought her to speak on Monday to about 60 people on Martha’s Vineyard, where tick-borne illness is one of the most serious and prevalent health concerns.
Ms. Weintraub’s family moved from the city to a house across from a deer field, and it was there that their elder son, Jason, began getting exceedingly sick. Eventually, after being evaluated by multiple doctors and countless inconclusive tests, Ms. Weintraub’s son finally tested positive for Lyme disease.
This diagnosis made sense to Ms. Weintraub. “We lived in a tick forest, my kid played in the fields with the deer,” she said, adding that because the deer tick (ixodes scapularis) is so easily transferable, it was an obvious conclusion that her son had Lyme disease.
She spent the next six years, until 2008, researching Lyme disease and gathering information for her book. It was at this time that Ms. Weintraub noticed there was a political debate over the disease, and that the issue of treatment was a highly polarized one.
In the early 1990s, when she moved to a wooded property in Westchester, N.Y., Ms. Weintraub began to notice her own symptoms of Lyme disease — extreme joint and muscle pain, a spiked fever and a harrowing migraine headache. But she thinks it was when she visited Woods Hole in 1990, she said, that she first got sick.
Ms. Weintraub said that although most people believe the disease originated in Lyme, Conn., the first cases were actually on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “It was a mystery illness,” she added.
The migraine headache Ms. Weintraub had was a nightmare — she said the pain lasted for years and was not treated until she was medicated with oral antibiotics. “My headache went away. I woke up one day and was like, ‘Wow — something is really different, something is gone.’ I was disoriented, and then I realized my headache was gone,” said Ms. Weintraub.
The crowd at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown responded to her talk in a 30-minute question and answer session, with discussion about treatments and more personal cases.
Dyan Redick is a West Tisbury resident and founder and president of Martha’s Vineyard Lyme Disease Association, one of the sponsors of the talk. She raised concern about the occupants of the Island being more susceptible to the disease than anyone else.
“One in every five people here have had a tick-borne illness — and one in every 10 visitors will too,” she said. These statistics, however, do not include children or the Brazilian population, she said.
According to Ms. Weintraub, building up a healthy immune system is the best remedy.
“It’s not all about antibiotics, it’s about building up your immune system,” she said, adding that she noticed her relapses stopped when she began taking oral antibiotics and developed a hale immune system. Ms. Weintraub stated that she got very sick three times before the relapses stopped completely.
Residents of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have the highest rate of exposure to tick-borne illness in Massachusetts, according to the Lyme Disease Association’s Web site, marthasvineyardlyme.org.
“There is no treatment that works for everybody,” said Ms. Weintraub, who also reiterated the importance of daily tick checks and other important prevention strategies.
Ms. Weintraub’s talk was also supported by Edgartown Books, Classic Aviators and the Harbor View Hotel.