Lyme disease epidemic? Tick-borne illness cases skyrocket 357% in rural America

NEW YORK – The summer season is tick season and that means one thing — Lyme disease cases are going to rise in the United States. Now, a concerning new report finds rural communities have seen cases of the tick-borne illness skyrocket in recent years.

Over the last 15 years, from 2007 to 2021, insurance claims for Lyme disease diagnoses have exploded by 357 percent in rural areas. Although people typically encounter disease-carrying ticks in the woods and tall grassy areas, researchers from FAIR Health say urban communities are seeing a surge as well. The non-profit says urban areas across the US have seen a 65-percent rise in Lyme cases since 2007.

Study authors analyzed a database of more than 36 billion privately-billed healthcare claims to discover this alarming trend.

From 2016 to 2021, Lyme disease diagnoses increased by 60 percent in rural America, while urban America saw a 19-percent increase. These cases typically reach their peak in June and July each year — as the country moves into the heart of summer. With more people outside in fields, parks, and other grassy areas, it’s no surprise more people in rural areas develop Lyme after a tick bite during these months.

Interestingly, the team found that there are more cases of Lyme in urban areas between November and April.

Where are Americans encountering ticks?

Historically, ticks are a major problem in the Northeast and upper Midwest, but the new study found that map may be growing in recent years. In 2017, the highest rates of Lyme diagnoses were found in New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont — with North Carolina (third-highest) coming as a surprise to researchers.

In 2021, however, North Carolina did not make the top five. New Jersey continued to rank as the state with the greatest proportion of Lyme disease diagnosis claims in the United States. Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut rounded out the top five. Researchers for FAIR Health add that the addition of Maine to the top five is also concerning, suggesting that disease-carrying ticks are now an issue in that state as well.

Lyme still a problem after treatment

The study also notes that Lyme disease can still affect patients long after a doctor treats the bacterial infection. While antibiotics can treat the illness, some patients can develop long-term symptoms, including fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and cognitive dysfunction.

“Lyme disease remains a growing public health concern. FAIR Health will continue to use its repository of claims data to provide actionable and relevant insights to healthcare stakeholders seeking to better understand the ongoing rise of Lyme disease cases,” says FAIR Health President Robin Gelburd in a media release.

Most cases of Lyme are mild, and some may not even know they’re sick. The tell-tale sign you’ve been bitten by a tick is a bullseye-like rash at the sight of infection. These cases are usually treatable with antibiotics.

In more serious and untreated cases however, Lyme can spread to the heart, joints, nervous system, and other major organs. These patients can develop neurological problems, weeks or even months after infection. Serious side-effects include inflammation of the brain (meningitis), temporary paralysis of the face, and weakness in the limbs.

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