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Lyme disease more common than previously thought

Lyme disease is 10 times more common than the federal government previously had counted, with about 300,000 people across the country getting the disease each year from deer ticks – most in the Northeast.

The new estimate, released Monday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is based on analyses of six years of data from health insurance claims, laboratories, and patients. Past estimates of 30,000 cases a year relied on what physicians reported to states, but it was widely known that many cases went unreported.

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The new estimate is expected to increase pressure for more government funding and coordination to control deer ticks, which have dramatically spread throughout Massachusetts and New England in recent decades.

“This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention,’’ said Dr. Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for CDC’s Lyme disease program. He said scientists have long known the number was underreported by three- to 12-fold but did not have a good handle on exactly how greatly until now.

The new numbers were presented at the 2013 International Conference on Lyme Borreliosis and Other Tick-Borne Diseases at Harvard Medical School.

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Deer ticks – often found in areas that are forested or covered with tall grass – can infect people with Lyme and four other known pathogens when they bite them. Early symptoms of Lyme include fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash that looks like a bulls-eye. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and nervous system, resulting in arthritis, facial palsy, tingling, and other symptoms.

Lyme disease is one of the most controversial diseases in the United States today. It was first identified in the mid-1970s when a group of children in Lyme, Conn., came down with mysterious arthritis-like symptoms. As numbers have grown since then, so has an enormous divide between Lyme patients and the medical establishment over whether the disease is chronic and whether long courses of antibiotics are needed to manage the long-term symptoms.

In Massachusetts, there were 3,342 confirmed and 1,708 probable Lyme disease cases reporteed last year, a 19 percent increase over 2011. In comparison, there were 33 human cases of West Nile virus and seven cases of Eastern equine encephalitis, both transmitted by mosquitoes, reported in 2012.

Lyme and ticks, however, appear to be a low priority for public health authorities. More than $10 million is spent each year in Massachusetts to control mosquitoes. Tick-borne diseases receive only about $60,000 annually in state funding.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.
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