By Astha Gupta
A mum and son battled an eight year illness hell and spent £113,000 on treatment after being bitten by 80 deadly ticks in their own front garden.
Amy Down, 37, had enjoyed a picnic in her yard with son Harrison, then four, daughter Ava, then two, and husband Brad, 40, when the whole family began feeling itchy.
When they examined themselves with a magnifying glass the following day, Amy was shocked to discover more than 40 tiny ticks had burrowed into her underarms, tummy, head, legs and arms while Harrison had around 30 on his trunk and neck.
Soon after the picnic in 2010, Amy began experiencing fatigue, stomach cramps, chest pain, twitching and dizziness while Harrison suffered asthma flare-ups, behavioural issues, anxiety and fine motor skills problems.
But Amy, who was forced to quit her job as a senior manager as the illness took hold, claims she faced years of misdiagnoses and was accused of making up her symptoms by doctors.
She and her son were both finally diagnosed with a rare unnamed tick-borne illness similar to Lyme Disease more than five years after they were bitten.
Lyme Disease is not considered an illness in Australia as the ticks which cause it are usually only found in North America and the country is yet to fully recognise other conditions caused by ticks.
Nutritionist Amy, from Sydney, New South Wales, said: “The first doctor I went to just days after we were bitten told us there are no tick-borne illnesses in Australia.
“He called us silly for even considering the thought and I was sent back home without any treatment.
“I didn’t have time to get sick juggling work and kids and had enough on my plate so I buried my head in the sand – I was in denial.
“But as the months passed, we were taking antibiotics after antibiotics but I was just not feeling well. I thought I was going crazy.
“The symptoms weren’t making sense and the more I researched I kept coming back to tick-borne illness.
“I was frustrated that I didn’t have any answers. Even the experts had no idea.
“Brad and I struggled to survive, and financially we barely managed.
“My failure to get a diagnosis for almost five years means I have lost precious years of my life. I wasn’t a tired mum, but a very sick mum.
“Tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease aren’t recognized in our country so nothing is covered.”
Amy and Brad had replaced a leaky sewage pipe which was causing toxic mould in their home a week before the picnic in 2010, and believe digging up their front yard is what unearthed hundreds of grass ticks.
When they spotted the ticks – which had luckily only bitten Brad and Ava a few times each – they removed them with tweezers but delayed seeing a doctor.
Amy added: “When we found the ticks naturally we were distressed, with poor Harrison screaming for us to take them out.
“We did a quick internet search and read that grass ticks are harmless and we had never heard otherwise in Australia so Brad put Harrison in the bath and plucked them out with tweezers.”
But within days Harrison’s asthma had flared up and Amy still felt itchy, had problems sleeping and suffered from stomach cramps.
Amy put her sickness down to work stress and mould, and carried on with her busy corporate role as a senior manager while Brad ran his own business.
But over the next year, Amy and Harrison experienced worsening symptoms with Harrison was having behavioural issues while both were losing weight.
As more time passed, Amy couldn’t keep up with work due to fatigue, chest pain, exhaustion, muscle cramps, twitching and dizziness.
Harrison was showing rage and anxiety issues, his fine motor skills were affected, he was constantly tired, and wasn’t growing up at par with other kids.
They kept seeing doctors, specialists and various therapists. But Amy claims some people, including medics, thought she was making it all up.
Meanwhile, she was spending more than £16,000 a year on every alternative and medical treatment possible – including hyperthermia treatment, where her body was heated to 40 degrees to kill bacteria, acupuncture, Kinesiology, infra-red saunas, detoxing, to physiotherapy and chirotherapy.
Finally, in February 2015 Amy was found positive for a rare tick-borne illnesses similar to Lyme Disease – which attacks every system in the body including muscle, bone, tissue, organs, central nervous system and brain.
Harrison was also tested and given a similar diagnosis in April 2016, with both mum and son put on a natural and herbal treatment regime and antibiotics.
Harrison, now 11, is slowly getting better but Amy still suffers memory loss, nausea, headaches, sensory overload, severe pain and insomnia.
She and Brad, who also tested positive for a tick-borne disease but was able to fight it, are now raising awareness of the dangers and believe early detection could save lives.
Amy said: “When I was diagnosed, it all made sense. I should have been devastated, but in some ways, I was relieved.
“I cried – there was definitely a grieving process, but at least we had a diagnosis, we could deal with it.
“The treatment is very complex as this illness attacks every system in the body.
“We have to balance our biochemistry, regularly detox, strengthen our immune systems, do holistic treatments, and use anti-microbials.
“It’s very slow but our hope is to get our life back one day with this approach.”
FACT BOX: LYME DISEASE AND TICK-BORNE ILLNESSES IN AUSTRALIA (INFO FROM THE KARL MCMANUS FOUNDATION)
– Lyme Disease is a tick-borne illness, caused by a small part of the family of Borrelia bacteria.
– Lyme disease is endemic on the East Coast of USA, but other continents such as Australia have their own variety of Borrelia which can result in similar as-yet-unnamed tick-borne illnesses, which can be life-threatening.
– To date, research has found that Australian ticks don’t carry Lyme Disease bacteria, which is why Lyme Disease is not recognised by the government in the country.
– Tick-borne illnesses are currently not fully recognised or covered under Australian medicare with a debate still ongoing regarding this.