May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month – and one thing you may not be currently be aware of is that Lyme disease is on the rise. NSPR’s Nolan Ford tells us more about the illness and why we’re seeing more cases throughout the country.
In 2016 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 26,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease across the United States, but more recent studies released by the CDC indicate that the actual number of people affected by Lyme is closer to 300,000. That’s six times the amount of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS each year across the country.
So how did this happen? Why are there suddenly over 10 times more people experiencing Lyme than there were just a couple years ago?
There are a couple reasons that point to why Lyme is on the rise. One factor is climate change. With milder winters come more favorable conditions for the ticks themselves as well as for the migrating animals they feed upon. Another reason is that up until recently it’s been hard to find proper treatment to diagnose Lyme.
“Ten years ago it was very, very difficult for anyone to even acknowledge we had an issue with Lyme disease. If you were bitten and you went to your doctor - I mean - it would be dismissed.”
That’s Shelly Mariposa, the Board Chair of The Lyme Center in Chico and a survivor of Lyme. She says that part of why it’s hard to diagnose Lyme is that it will often manifest itself differently in every individual case.
“So for me it went into my joints like someone with rheumatoid arthritis. With somebody else, like the famous author Amy Tan, it went right into her brain and she felt like she was going crazy. To me, the stranger the symptoms the more likely you probably have Lyme,” she said.
Most people know that Lyme disease is a bacteria-caused illness transmitted by ticks, most commonly in the spring or summer. The common symptoms traditionally associated with Lyme are fever, sore throat, joint pain, and a notorious rash that resembles the shape of a bullseye.
“But not everyone gets that. Not all patients get the rash. It’s less than half. And sometimes people might be getting a bullseye rash and not seeing it because it might be on their hairline or their scalp.”
Carolyn B. Welcome works as a physician’s assistant at Gordon Medical Associates in Santa Rosa. She says that 300,000 might be a conservative estimate for the amount of people infected with Lyme each year, and the evidence is in data collected from dogs.
“They have about three times 300,000. In other words almost a million cases a year. There’s a pretty strong correlation between dogs and their masters so it could really be that there are close to a million cases,” said Welcome.
Welcome says that dogs are much more routinely screened for Lyme than humans and have tested positive for the disease in all 50 states.
One common problem for people experiencing Lyme is that it’s hard to find a doctor who will test them properly.
“Most doctors will just order what is called the screening test. And that insurance covers, but it’s totally worthless and the results don’t mean anything. They can be false positive, false negatives.”
That’s Dylan, who asked we only use his first name for this story. Dylan dealt with Chronic Lyme, which is a more severe case that occurs when antibiotics aren’t effective or if the disease goes untreated for years. Dylan says that Lyme can actually be very easy to detect as long as your doctor knows what to look for and they order the right test.
“Once a doctor orders the right test, which is the IGeneX test - that will tell you definitively positive or negative, not just for Lyme but also the coinfections. A lot of people think that you’re going to be stuck with Lyme disease for life, but it is curable.”
The Lyme Center in Chico will be hosting their annual event to raise awareness about Lyme disease this Friday. It will be at the Chico Women’s Club from 6PM to 9PM.