Lyme disease, caused by bacteria carried by black-legged ticks, is more common than previously understood and is on the rise.
AHCJ’s new tip sheet will aid in your reporting on this illness and other tick-borne diseases.
According to a new meta-analysis study published in the June 2022 issue of BMJ Global Health, about 14% of the world’s population likely has had Lyme disease. The analysis of antibodies in laboratory blood samples taken between January 1984 and December 2021 revealed that about 20.7% of people in central Europe, 15.9% in East Asia, and 13.5% and 9% in North America had been infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
“There are more tick-borne disease cases every year,” said John Aucott, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center, during a June 8 AHCJ webcast. “This is an insidious epidemic. It hasn’t been as dramatic as COVID-19, so it has crept up on us.”
Ticks are emerging earlier from winter hibernation and staying active longer because of climate and deforestation, according to public health experts. As a result, Americans’ risk of infection from pathogens carried by the outdoor pests is rising. According to the CDC, the total number of tick-borne diseases reported to the agency rose by 125% to 50,865 in 2019 from 22,527 in 2004.
Black-legged ticks (also called deer ticks) traditionally have thrived in forests in the Northeast, central north Midwest and the mid-Atlantic, where people were also at risk of contracting tick-borne diseases. But with the weather getting warmer sooner in many parts of the country, ticks have spread farther south, west and east. This CDC has a map of where ticks have spread and regions where ticks have been located from 2020 to 2021.
These figures however, are an underestimate of the prevalence of Lyme and tick-borne disease-related cases because most aren’t reported to the agency. The CDC said it’s likely that the number of cases is ten times larger than reported. For example, in May 2022, Pennsylvania health authorities said they expected at least 100,000 cases of Lyme disease in their state this year.
Lyme disease symptoms such as fever, headaches, and fatigue can mimic signs of COVID-19, causing physicians to be concerned about misdiagnosis, Aucott said. He urged journalists to write about the potential for misdiagnosis and offered additional story ideas.
To learn more about how to cover tick season in your community and find better data and new sources and story ideas, check out AHCJ’s new tip sheet for covering tick-borne disease.
Having covered/studied Lyme Disease since 2008, a few words for my fellow members. Additional sources to consider include ILADS.org which is a medical society of physicians and NPs who focus entirely on tick-borne diseases. There are also SMEs at lymedisease.org, including physicians, researchers (focused on human and tick angles), patient advocates, and people who participated in the years-long Tick-Bourne Disease Working Group run by HHS ( https://www.hhs.gov/ash/advisory-committees/tickbornedisease/index.html ) One additional angle to consider if covering Lyme Disease for your community is which of the primary care practitioners are considered Lyme-literate medical doctors. There is a great shortage of physicians who know how to work in this developing space. Because there is such a shortage of healthcare professionals focused on Lyme and tick-Bourne diseases, Lyme groups on social media are a key source of physician referral for each other as well as a great deal of accurate and erroneous information and treatments. Physician education and experience are key because ultimately, the Dx is clinical, not dependent just on testing since the commonly used blood tests seeking antibodies to Lyme (and just Lyme) still aren’t sufficiently reliable. However, there are exciting developments in new forms of treatment, diagnostic testing, and prevention. There is a significant divide still between physicians who are ILADS members and IDSA members, which presaged the type of internecine attitudes one finds in politics these days. At one point the CDC admitted they were only surveilling one of ten cases of disease from tick transmission. And that Lyme is an umbrella phrase for a long list of tick-borne illnesses, and covers all stages from classic and caught-in-time to intractable and late-stage. Oh and you might want to survey the Lyme and T-B Diseases community about the new vaccines on the market. Because of the failure of the first vaccine and the legends that have sprung up about it, there is a deep distrust of Lyme vaccines — and now all vaccines — among a sizable segment of the community. The degree may be hyperlocal.