Lyme Disease Sickens 10 Times As Many People As We Originally Thought

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Up to 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That constitutes a ten-fold increase over the number of Americans researchers previously thought to be infected by the illness.

Lyme disease is caused by several types of tick-borne bacteria. A bite from an infected tick can cause symptoms such as chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, and in more severe stages may spread to the heart or cause cognitive deterioration. The condition can be treated with antibiotics.

Researchers have consistently thought that the 20,000 to 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported by doctors every year were on the low side, and that not all physicians reported every infection. And the new data based on surveys of seven national laboratories, patient interviews, and insurance information shows just how appropriate their concerns were.

“It’s giving us a fuller picture and it’s not a pleasing one,” said Dr. Paul Mead, who oversees the CDC’s tracking of Lyme disease, in an interview with the Associated Press.

The new findings could stoke concerns for Americans living in the states where ticks and Lyme disease are prevalent, including New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Government officials may eventually be able to shed some light on some of Lyme disease’s more controversial aspects now that they have more complete data on its incidence. There is extensive debate about a condition some people refer to as “chronic Lyme disease” wherein the disease’s symptoms last months and even years after treatment with antibiotics.

The mainstream medical community does recognize something called “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” (PTLDS) in some people who have a proven history of being infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria strain that causes the American form of Lyme disease. But based on the available data — which is admittedly scant — only somewhere between 0.5 percent and 13 percent of genuine Lyme disease patients experience PTLDS.

There also isn’t conclusive evidence whether or not this condition is actually caused by the original infection, treatment, or something else entirely. Slate’s Brian Palmer explains that some think that the chronic aches and fatigue experienced by patients who claim they have PTLDS may actually just be effect of getting older. And the (skimpy) available data suggests that the vast majority of people claiming to have chronic Lyme disease have no proven history of being infected with the bacteria.

A minority of doctors do believe that chronic Lyme disease is a real and prevalent condition. These physicians usually administer a long-term course of antibiotic treatments — but this is a controversial practice, as there is little to no widespread evidence that the long-term treatment actually works (although there are individual patients who claim they’ve been cured by it).

That’s why insurance companies almost never cover the prolonged treatment, which can cost about $2,000 out-of-pocket for a single dose. Some in the medical community say that the long-term exposure to intravenously administered antibiotics can actually cause its own health problems, including gall bladder issues and allergic reactions.