Lifestyle & Belief

Lyme disease 10 times more common in US than previously believed


An engorged deer tick (Ixodes scapularis).

Ticks are universally unpopular, but new government figures have given Americans another reason to loathe these bloodsuckers: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there's an average of 300,000 cases of Lyme in the United States yearly, ten times higher than previous estimates. 

An early estimate, the numbers were extrapolated from three studies performed with different methods. Only 30,000 cases of Lyme are actively reported to the CDC each year — indicating that America's response to Lyme likely needs to be more aggressive.

"We know that routine surveillance only gives us part of the picture, and that the true number of illnesses is much greater," said Paul Mead, the chief of epidemiology and surveillance for the CDC’s Lyme disease program in a press release.

"This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention," Mead added.

The CDC will conduct more research and will move to a more proactive approach to eradicating Lyme disease — and ticks — from affected areas of the US. 

"We know people can prevent tick bites through steps like using repellents and tick checks. Although these measures are effective, they aren’t fail-proof and people don’t always use them," said Lyle R. Petersen, director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, in the press release. "We need to move to a broader approach to tick reduction, involving entire communities, to combat this public health problem."

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What is Lyme disease? This persistent bacterial infection is spread by ticks (a small arachnid) and is found in both North America and in Europe, largely in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. 

In 2011, 96 percent of documented US Lyme cases hailed from 13 states, making Lyme something of a regional concern: it was found in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

An inflammatory disease, Lyme is treated with antibiotics and usually manifests with an expanding rash, often in the shape of a bulls-eye. Fatigue, an aching neck, disorientation, and other serious symptoms can follow.  

Unfortunately, Lyme often manifests differently in different people, making it difficult to catch early at times. The American Lyme Disease Foundation notes that "diagnosis and treatment can be challenging for clinicians due to its diverse manifestations and the limitations of currently available serological (blood) tests."

Avoiding Lyme disease means avoiding ticks. When taking late-summer walks in the woods, use insect repellant and cover up. Conduct tick checks when you get home, and remove them safely — and the same advice goes for pets, who are often affected by Lyme in the same fashion as humans.