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Lyme Disease

Causes And Symptoms, Early, Localized Lyme Disease, Late, Disseminated Disease And Chronic Lyme DiseasePrevention

Lyme disease is an infection transmitted by the bite of ticks carrying the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb). The disease was named for Lyme, Connecticut, the town where it was first diagnosed in 1975, after a puzzling outbreak of arthritis. The organism was named for its discoverer, Willy Burgdorfer. The effects of this disease can be long-term and disabling unless it is recognized and treated properly with antibiotics.

Lyme disease is a vector-borne disease, which means it is delivered from one host to another. In this case, a tick bearing the Bb organism literally inserts it into a host's bloodstream when it bites the host to feed on its blood. It is important to note that neither Bb nor Lyme disease can be transmitted from one person to another.

In the United States, Lyme disease accounts for more than 90% of all reported vector-borne illnesses. It is a significant public health problem and continues to be diagnosed in increasing numbers. More than 99,000 cases were reported between 1982 and 1996. When the numbers for 1996 Lyme disease cases reported were tallied, there were 16,455 new cases, a record high following a drop in reported cases from 1994 (13,043 cases) to 1995 (11,700 cases). Controversy clouds the true incidence of Lyme disease because no test is definitively diagnostic for the disease, and the broad spectrum of Lyme disease's symptoms mimic those of so many other diseases. Originally, public health specialists thought Lyme disease was limited geographically in the United States to the East Coast. We now know it occurs in most states, with the highest number of cases in the eastern third of the country.

The risk for acquiring Lyme disease varies, depending on what stage in its life cycle a tick has reached. A tick passes through three stages of development—larva, nymph, and adult—each of which is dependent on a live host for food. In the United States, Bb is borne by ticks of several species in the genus Ixodes, which usually feed on the white-footed mouse and deer (and are often called deer ticks). In the summer, the larval ticks hatch from eggs laid in the ground and feed by attaching themselves to small animals and birds. At this stage they are not a problem for humans. It is the next stage—the nymph—that causes most cases of Lyme disease. Nymphs are very active from spring through early summer, at the height of outdoor activity for most people. Because they are still quite small (less than 2 mm), they are difficult to spot, giving them ample opportunity to transmit Bb while feeding. Although far more adult ticks than nymphs carry Bb, the adult ticks are much larger, more easily noticed, and more likely to be removed before the 24 hours or more of continuous feeding needed to transmit Bb.

The best prevention strategy is through minimizing risk of exposure to ticks and using personal protection precautions. There is also research into vaccination against the tick vector to prevent the tick from feeding long enough to transmit the infection.

Minimize risk of exposure

Precautions to avoid contact with ticks include moving leaves and brush away from living quarters. Most important are personal protection techniques when outdoors, such as:

  • using repellents containing DEET
  • wearing light-colored clothing to maximize ability to see ticks
  • tucking pant legs into socks or boot top
  • checking children frequently for ticks

In highly tick-populated areas, each individual should be inspected at the end of the day to look for ticks.

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