Lyme Disease Cases Increase In Finger Lakes

05.06.14 | Bill Price

At 19, Ana Harris was embarking on a promising dance career.

That was until she got sick.

Almost overnight, she became severely fatigued, experienced rapid weight gain, joint aches and neurological distress. She couldn’t get out of bed.

“I was going downhill,” said Harris, of Ithaca, now 21. She quit dancing and, despite numerous tests and seeing 20 doctors over two years, no one could figure out what was wrong. That was until it was suggested she take a test for Lyme disease.

The test came back positive and, much to her relief to know the cause of her illness, she received a clinical diagnosis no one had suspected.

Harris’ case, although severe, is a sobering example of the varied and sometimes difficult to diagnose symptoms of the tick-borne disease that affects 300,000 people annually, most in the New England states, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2012, there were more than 2,000 cases in New York. Experts suggest that number is actually much higher.

Lyme disease is a bacterial (borriela) infection transmitted through the bite of an infected deer ticks that if caught early enough can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Initial symptoms can include fever, chills fatigue, and in 60 to 80 percent of cases, a bull’s-eye rash at the bite. In some, symptoms can persist beyond a few months, but the majority get better within weeks, said Douglas MacQueen, an infectious disease doctor in Ithaca, who sees an uptick in Lyme patients in May, June and July.

“People can get very sick with Lyme and get a lot of different manifestations but the good thing is that they’re all 100 percent treatable with antibiotics regardless of the stage they’re diagnosed at,” he said.

But as the number of confirmed Lyme disease cases in humans increases in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes, health departments are making it a priority to inform the citizenry of its effects and how to prevent it. Deer ticks are currently in their nymph stage, the size of a poppy seed, and are often difficult to detect.

Increasing problem

“Ten years ago, we didn’t think Lyme was here,” said Claudia Edwards, director of the Broome County Health Department. “If we had a case, we looked at people’s travel history.”

Lyme disease is endemic in Broome County, as designated by the state, and over the last two years, the number of laboratory confirmed cases jumped from 70 to more than 200.

“The increase has been significant,” Edwards said. “(Ticks) are in your front lawn. You don’t have to go wading through the forest anymore or go out rock climbing to be at risk for Lyme.”

County health department websites, including Broome’s, lists precautions individuals can take to decrease the risk of getting a tick bite. “It’s a message of prevention,” she said, noting: “We got more information out on West Nile than Lyme disease in Broome County. ... We need to beef up our message more.”

It’s a similar story in Tompkins and Chemung counties, although the latter has not been designated as endemic (more than 50 cases a year), but nonetheless has seen the numbers rise.

Tompkins County became endemic in 2007.

“We know it’s here and on the increase,” said Theresa Lyczko, of the Tompkins County Health Department. In 2008, there were 46 cases of confirmed Lyme disease and 87 in 2012. The jump could be due to better reporting and physician awareness. Still, that number could be much higher, said Lyczko, adding that the state’s definition of Lyme is a “narrow” one.

“We don’t focus on the numbers as much,” Lyczko said. “It doesn’t give us much information. ... People should focus on prevention.”

A survey conducted at the Newtown Battlefield State Park in Chemung County in 2012, revealed that more than half of the ticks collected tested positive for Lyme disease.

“We have low incidence of confirmed Lyme here but suspected and confirmed cases are different. It still is a risk here,” said Robert Page, director of of the Chemung County Health Department.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of cases rose steadily. “I’d say it’s a problem that won’t go away,” Page said.