In 2014, a record-number of Alabamians contracted Lyme disease from infected ticks, according to a report from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
The number of people infected jumped from 24 in 2013 to 64 last year. But fortunately for hikers and other outdoorsy types, the numbers have fallen again this year. So far in 2015, 23 cases of Lyme disease have been confirmed in the state, according to the department.
“At this time, we have no explanation for the large jump in cases last year,” wrote state epidemiologist Dr. Mary McIntyre in an email.
For years, state health officials did not believe that ticks infected with Lyme disease lived in Alabama. Last month, health officials sent a letter to medical professionals confirming that Lyme disease is endemic in seven Alabama counties: Calhoun, Chambers, Jefferson, Mobile, Shelby, Russell and Tuscaloosa. Counties are considered endemic for Lyme disease if at least two confirmed cases were acquired in the area.
Lyme disease is still much less common in Alabama than in other areas of the country. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 96 percent of confirmed cases happened in 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Kevin Wolfe, president of the Alabama Lyme disease Association, said he thinks the department of public health numbers don’t include all the state’s cases. The department can only count patients who have tested positive on two separate tests, and many people may not receive the full battery during diagnosis, Wolfe said.
“It’s a very high bar to get over and it’s difficult to get a reportable case in Alabama,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe is pleased that state health officials are acknowledging the presence of Lyme disease in Alabama.
Awareness is important because clinicians who aren’t familiar with the disease may have trouble with diagnosis. About 70 to 80 percent of patients get the characteristic bulls-eye rash at the site of the tick bite. Other symptoms include fever, fatigue and arthritis.
Some patients may suffer extended symptoms after antibiotic treatment. The diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease is controversial. Some doctors and researchers doubt the existence of a chronic form of the disease. Others treat persistent symptoms with long courses of antibiotics.
Officials from the Alabama Department of Public Health encourage patients who believe they may be infected with Lyme disease to ask for a two-stage test. A positive or borderline result on an Enzyme Immunoassay or Immunoflourescence Assay should be followed by a Western Blot.
Department officials warn against using Lyme disease tests that haven’t been approved by the CDC or FDA.
The Alabama Study Commission on Tickborne Illness, which was created during the regular session, is scheduled to submit a report in January 2016.