Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, and the number of patients diagnosed with the illness is much greater than previously thought. In August 2013, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 300,000 patients were diagnosed with Lyme disease in the U.S. – ten times greater than the number reported the previous year.
This new number was derived from a survey of seven national laboratories, a national patient survey, and a review of insurance information. It is the CDC’s most comprehensive attempt at a better estimate. But the numbers are estimated to be much higher when you include the vast number of patients who are told they don’t have Lyme disease because they don’t live in the right part of the country, didn’t get the telltale bulls eye rash, or received a false-negative result on the Western Blot test.
With numbers this large, it’s clear that Lyme disease is a serious issue in this country. In fact, some health officials are now calling Lyme disease an epidemic that is as widespread as AIDS, and are warning that the disease may prove to be just as destructive, without greater awareness.
First identified in 1975, Lyme disease is transmitted to people through vectors, or blood-sucking arthropods. It is most commonly transmitted by ticks, but possibly also may be carried by mosquitos and biting flies. According to the CDC, vector-borne diseases are some of the world’s most destructive diseases, and are among the most complex of all infectious diseases to prevent and control.
Proper diagnosis of Lyme disease can be difficult for many reasons, including unsatisfactory tests that have a high percentage of false-negative results, as well as confusion about how to interpret the tests. Symptoms of Lyme disease can mimic those of other illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, and Lou Gherig’s disease, just to name a few, making it even harder to properly diagnose. And less than one-quarter of all Lyme patients experience the “bull’s-eye” rash that is commonly associated with Lyme disease, further increasing the likelihood of a wrong diagnosis.
Even when patients do get a diagnosis of Lyme disease, the healthcare industry remains divided on how to treat the illness. When Lyme disease is caught early, treatment with oral antibiotics is usually sufficient. But all too often the diagnosis is missed or delayed, often for years, allowing the infection to spread throughout the body and affect every body system, including the central nervous system. And because a large number of healthcare professionals don’t believe chronic Lyme disease even exists, patients can spend years trying to find a doctor who can diagnose and properly treat the disease.
According to Dr. Leo J. Shea III, president of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, commonly known as ILADS, the present world of Lyme disease can be compared to the world of AIDS in the early 1980s, when AIDS was not acknowledged as a real disease and people died. Advances in AIDS diagnosis and treatment came only after a sustained period of heavily funded research, both nationally and internationally. Shea notes that the same requirement is needed if we are going to stop Lyme disease from becoming a public health epidemic. Dr. Raphael Stricker, also with ILADS, emphasizes that resolution of the controversy surrounding Lyme disease will play an important role in improving diagnosis and treatment.