Despite the widespread prevalence of Lyme disease and the misery it’s caused, there is still no vaccine, no diagnostic test to allow for early detection and no exact understanding of what causes some patients who finish the recommended dose of antibiotics to continue to suffer long term from fatigue, pain or joint and muscle aches.
As one of the most common reportable infectious diseases in Maine, it is alarming that so many questions still exist about Lyme. The federal government needs to more fully investigate how to prevent, diagnose and treat it.
Less than two decades ago, ticks — and accompanying Lyme disease — were relatively rare. In 2001, there were only 8.4 cases of Lyme disease reported per 100,000 people, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
By 2015, the rate increased more than tenfold, to 90.2 per 100,000 people. Three counties in particular saw incredibly high rates: Knox (297.4 per 100,000), Hancock (219.4 per 100,000) and Lincoln (213.6 per 100,000).
In addition to increasing in number, cases of Lyme disease — caused by a bacteria spread by an infected tick’s bite — have emerged in every county. What started as a problem isolated in southern coastal Maine spread.
What are the specific reasons ticks are multiplying? There is some indication that the increase correlates with changing climate conditions. Also, where there was once farmland, Maine now has often fragmented forest — the perfect tick hideout. Ticks like moisture, making the state’s more populated coast and riverbanks a preferred tick habitat.
But what is really causing the spread of ticks, and can states curb their growth?
Next, how can doctors better diagnose Lyme? Because the antibodies against Lyme disease bacteria usually take time to develop, it can be four to six weeks before a test will show people are infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This delay between when people are infected and when the body creates antibodies can result in a false negative test for some people, causing a hold-up in treatment.
“Because treatment is generally more effective in early stages of the disease, it is important to develop new tools that can help doctors make an early diagnosis,” according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Finally, how can doctors better treat Lyme? It can be quelled successfully with several weeks of antibiotics, but researchers still don’t know what causes some people to continue to suffer long term. Called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, people may experience persistent pain, fatigue, impaired cognitive function or unexplained numbness. In studies, long-term antibiotic therapy has proven no more helpful than a placebo. Much more research is needed to understand how to help those in continual distress.
By now, you might have an anti-tick routine: wearing long sleeves and tucking your pants into your socks, applying a repellent, checking for ticks after being outside, removing them immediately if you find them and clearing tall grass in your yard, where ticks are protected.
But don’t think the new routine is normal or acceptable. Demand more answers about how to fight this public health hazard.