Lyme disease cases soar to record high in 1996

ATLANTA (AP) June 12, 1997 -- Reported cases of Lyme disease, a potentially fatal illness spread by ticks, climbed to 16,461 last year in 45 states, the highest count since the government started keeping track in 1982.

A thriving tick population, especially in the Northeast, is partly to blame. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that doctors are becoming more vigilant in diagnosing and reporting cases.

Ticks that cause Lyme disease can be found throughout United States from May to October. The deer tick and the western black-legged tick are red with black legs, and are initially as small as sesame seed. Symptoms include rash around the bite, headache, chills and fever and muscle aches that develop 18 to 36 hours after bite. Disease is treatable with antibiotics. Left untreated, it can infect nervous system and shut down heart and brain.

Prevention:

In woods or grassy areas, wear long pants tucked into socks and long-sleeved shirts. Remove tick by grasping it as close to skin as possible with tweezers and gently pulling until it releases grip. Clean bite with antiseptic.

"There is an increased awareness of Lyme disease," said Dr. Kathy Orloski, a CDC epidemiologist. "Doctors in areas where Lyme disease is endemic are becoming quite familiar with it."

Lyme disease comes from bacteria carried by the deer tick in the East and the western black-legged tick in the West. Within a few days, the bacteria cause flu-like symptoms and often a rash near the bite.

Caught early, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Untreated, the bacteria spread to the central nervous system, heart and brain, and in rare cases can kill.

Connaught Laboratories, a Swiftwater, Pennsylvania-subsidiary of Rhone-Poulenc Group, plans to seek approval for the first-ever human Lyme disease vaccine by the end of the year, citing good results in a study of 10,000 people.

The number of cases in 1996 are a 41 percent from the 11,700 reported the year before. A snowy winter last year, especially in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, protected tick nests from predators, and the wet spring and summer gave the deer tick ideal conditions in which to thrive.

About 90 percent of last year's cases were in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. New York topped the list with 5,301 cases. The disease was first identified in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1976.