With last year's Ebola scare, and ongoing concerns about cancer and other deadly diseases, it's easy to overlook Lyme disease, which is spread by a tiny insect.
But the Lyme disease threat is quietly growing and could pose a threat to more Americans. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 96% of confirmed Lyme disease cases occurred in just 14 states.
But in a new geographical survey, the government health agency says the ticks known to carry Lyme disease has been spotted in nearly half the counties in the U.S., meaning a lot more people could be at risk than previously believed.
A CDC research team logged reports of the blacklegged tick in more than 45% of U.S. counties, compared to 30% of counties in 1998. Even more alarming, the blacklegged tick population in those counties is growing.
"This study shows that the distribution of Lyme disease vectors has changed substantially over the last nearly two decades and highlights areas where risk for human exposure to ticks has changed during that time," Dr. Rebecca Eisen, a CDC research biologist, said in a release. "The observed range expansion of the ticks highlights a need for continuing and enhancing vector surveillance efforts, particularly along the leading edges of range expansion."
Largely overlooked health issue
Debra McGregor, of the Texas Lyme Disease Association, says the Lyme disease health threat has been largely overlooked. Government health agencies, she says, haven't done a good job of dealing with it.
“Unreliable tests, inadequate treatment regimens, insufficient funding for research, ineffective programs for prevention, combined with CDC’s endorsement of outdated treatment guidelines have created a perfect storm of unmet medical need and patient suffering,” McGregor said in a statement.
McGregor says Lyme disease continues to spread with increasing speed, with a 320% increase in the number of high risk counties from 1992 to 2012. She says the number of new cases annually acknowledged by the CDC has increased dramatically from just 10,000 in 1995 to more than 300,000 in 2013—six times more than HIV/AIDS—and likely many more due to underreporting and misdiagnosis
McGregor and other activists trying to call attention to Lyme disease have planned a concerted campaign to get Washington's attention. Lyme disease patients and their supporters will make telephone calls next week to members of Congress, urging more focus on what they say is a growing public health crisis.
Lyme disease is caused by tick bites from insects carrying the disease. While it is most often associated with activity in heavily wooded areas, you can get a bite while mowing the lawn. You can even be bitten while indoors by a tick that comes in on your dog or cat.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can be similar to those of the flu. The difference is the presence of a rash that may appear three to 30 days after the tick bite. If untreated, Lyme disease can lead to very serious health problems.