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BOSTON — Golfers with tendencies to hit their golf balls into the rough may be flirting with fever, headache and nausea, recent research suggests.

Those who routinely leave the fairway in search of their golf balls run a higher risk of contracting tick-borne bacteria than do golfers who use a new ball, according to an article in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The golf-oriented Fairfield Glade retirement community 10 miles north of Crossville, Tenn., in June 1993 was hit by ehrlichiosis, a disease believed to be transmitted by a parasite known as the lone star tick. The illness causes fever, headache and nausea.

Eight researchers, including University of Tennessee entomologist Reid Gerhardt investigated and found a sharp distinction between Fairfield Glade, adjacent to a wildlife-management area, and a golf community 20 miles to the South, surrounded by open farmland with less wildlife.

The high rate of infection in Fairfield Glade “resulted from its proximity to a wildlife reserve,” the report said. No cases were found in the other community.

“The risk of infection was associated with tick bites, exposure to wildlife, golfing and, among golfers, retrieving lost golf balls from the rough.”

Dr. Steven M. Standaert of the Centers for Disease Control, lead investigator of the study, talked with 311 persons in Fairfield Glade and 92 in the other community. He found the rate of symptomatic infection was 660 cases per 100,000 annually, at least 200 times higher than previous estimates from local, state and national sources.

“Among men who golfed, the risk of infection was significantly greater for players who reported higher golf scores — that is, poorer golfers,” the report said. “The golfing practice that was most strongly associated with infection was retrieving a golf ball that was hit off the course instead of using a new one,” it said.

The report said those who “regularly left the fairway to search (for lost balls) in the woods were at significantly higher risk than those who simply used a new ball.”

“When outdoor recreational activities are popular and the concentration of ticks is high, outbreaks…are likely,” Dr. Gerhardt said.

Gerhardt cited a 1947 study which said less skillful golfers might be at higher risk of contracting Rocky Mountain spotted fever, transmitted by ticks. The study suggested a “golfer’s skill correlated inversely with the likelihood of exposure to the rough and thus to tick bites and infection.”

Gerhardt’s research was partially funded by the Fairfield Glade Community Club and the UT Agricultural Experiment Station.

Earlier this summer, Gerhardt reported that a drug dispensed in deer food has reduced by six times the tick reproduction near Fairfield Glade.

Because deer are major carriers of ticks, Gerhardt in 1994 set out corn laced with a drug which kills ticks but does not harm deer. A follow-up this year showed marked reduction in immature ticks which hatch in the late summer and fall, he said.

“This technology has very real potential for breaking the life cycle of ticks and reducing the overall numbers of ticks,” Gerhardt said.

But he cautioned that tick problems may get worse in Tennessee because many people are moving into rural areas and coming more in contact with animals and ticks.

Contact: Reid Gerhardt (615-974-7135)