Lyme disease crawls into new parts of region

WASHINGTON – Lyme disease infection rates in this region are among the highest in the country, and the disease is beginning to show up in areas where it was seldom seen before.

Virginia and Maryland are among the 13 states that accounted for 96 percent of reported cases in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC statistics for 2012 are not available yet. But Dr. Paul Auwaerter, clinical director for the Division of Infectious Disease at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, detects some disturbing trends.

He says Lyme disease is being seen in parts of Virginia where it was not common before. It is also on the march in Maryland.

“It has always been present in Maryland, but we are seeing it more now toward Western Maryland than we had years before,” Auwaerter says.

There are many theories for the increase in reported cases. More people are moving into wooded areas where the black-legged tick, commonly known as the deer tick, that carries Lyme disease in the eastern U.S. is found. Auwaerter notes awareness of Lyme disease “has certainly increased compared to the early years.”

Lyme disease was virtually unknown until the mid 1970s when researchers began investigating what appea red to be an outbreak of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Conn. Eventually, the cause of their symptoms was linked to tick bites.

That bit of medical history is unquestioned. But these days, just about everything related to Lyme disease has become the subject of a heated debate.

Most, but not all, Lyme patients develop standard symptoms including a tell-tale rash that many people call a “bull’s eye.” If detected early, they can usually be easily treated with antibiotics.

But Auwaerter says a small subset of patients do not respond well to treatment. Some have persistent chronic fatigue, muscle aches and pains long after testing negative for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

They are now pushing for more research. And some patients complain that their dire health issues have been largely misdiagnosed or worse: ignored by the medical community at large.

“I will be the first to acknowledge I see many patients in my practice who have complaints,” says Auwaerter, who adds he understands their anger. “Their life has changed. They no longer feel like they can take care of their families, perform their jobs as adequately, and it is an extremely important problem.”

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources offers more tips to prevent Lyme disease and more details about Lyme disease infection rates.

The V irginia Department of Health has more information about the other diseases that ticks can spread.

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