State protects Lyme therapy with new law

Last modified: 6/17/2011 12:00:00 AM
Steve Clark has long offered a simple plea before treating patients for chronic Lyme disease: Please don't sue me for trying to help you.

As a naturopathic doctor in Wolfeboro over the last 10 years, Clark has lived in constant fear that someone will report him or take him to court simply for offering long-term antibiotic treatment to sufferers of chronic Lyme disease. He says he officially "came out of the closet" as a chronic Lyme disease doctor two years ago, and people from around the world have contacted him seeking help.

But all those sleepless nights, the paranoia that he would eventually lose his license and "become a gardener," may now be over. Last week, a state law passed preventing doctors from being disciplined "solely for prescribing, administering, or dispensing long-term antibiotic therapy for a patient clinically diagnosed with Lyme disease."

"This bill makes me not afraid," Clark said. "If they sue me, at least it's for gross negligence."

The Infectious Disease Society of America's guidelines recommend against prescribing long-term antibiotics for the tick-borne disease, which is cured in 95 percent of patients within a few weeks of treatment, the society says. In rare cases, lingering symptoms may persist, but "in more than 20 years there has not been one scientifically valid study published in the peer-reviewed medical literature that proves that the benefit of long-term antibiotic treatment outweighs the risk."

"Long-term antibiotic therapy for so-called chronic Lyme disease is not only unproven, it may in fact be dangerous," according to the society.

Those who think they are getting better with long-term treatment may be experiencing a "placebo effect," the society says, or the antibiotics may be treating another infectious disease causing the Lyme-like symptoms. Clark said the symptoms of chronic Lyme disease include neurological problems like confusion, tingling and numbness; migrating joint and muscle pain; and heart problems, such as palpitations.

Though the state Board of Medicine said no doctors have been disciplined in New Hampshire for treating chronic Lyme disease, the board president spoke in opposition to the bill when it was introduced last year.

That bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Daniels of Milford, was stalled by the Senate. This year, Daniels's bill passed both houses, and the governor let it become law last week without his signature.

Daniels said the bill allows chronic Lyme disease patients in New Hampshire to receive in-state treatment instead of traveling elsewhere to see doctors who can practice openly. Clark said he knows of only a handful of New Hampshire doctors offering long-term treatment. In 2009, 1,200 cases of Lyme disease were reported in New Hampshire.

"What I'm looking to do is bring them some relief," Daniels said. "Their lives are hard as it is anyway."

Daniels said the issue was brought to his attention by Cathy Kettmann, 57, of Bow, who graduated with him from Milford High School.

"She was a very active person," Daniels recalled. But about five years ago, prior to being diagnosed with chronic Lyme, Kettmann said she found herself bedridden with symptoms that had been futilely attributed to multiple sclerosis, lupus and tumors by various doctors. Her husband carried her around the house because she could not bring herself to crawl.

Since seeing a chronic Lyme doctor in New York City about two and a half years ago, Kettmann is back on her feet. Her treatment included 16 months of intravenous antibiotics.

"It gave me back my life," she said.

Kettmann formed a committee to research the proposed legislation presented to Daniels. When the bill was first introduced, Daniels said, "I think the Legislature was pretty naive about Lyme disease."

But after hearings over the last two years attended by hundreds of sufferers, "it's really hard to sit there and say there's no such thing as chronic Lyme," he said.

Clark, who said he had chronic Lyme disease for 11 years, said he sees five new patients each week with the disease. Clark said he uses a test that specifically shows the presence of the Lyme organism while other doctors mistakenly test for antibodies that aren't present in Lyme disease patients.

"It's an overwhelming epidemic right now," he said.

Some people may accuse him of money-digging by prescribing antibiotics to patients who have been undiagnosed by other medical professionals or told to "take an antidepressant and shut up," he said.

But Clark said four out of five of his patients see some sort of solution to their problem.

"I'm definitely helping people," he said. Now, "I feel a little more comfortable in what I'm doing."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)




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