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Public health officials keeping a close eye on state's Lyme disease numbers

Dominion Post - 3/30/2023

Mar. 30—MORGANTOWN — When COVID-19 chased health-conscious West Virginians outdoors in an effort to maintain social distance, did it chase them into the waiting jaws of another bug and the state's next pandemic ?

During Thursday's Monongalia CountyBoard of Health meeting, County Health Officer Lee Smith said discussions about the prevalence of Lyme disease in West Virginia are becoming increasingly urgent.

"Some of us think that may very well qualify as the next pandemic, just because the numbers are shooting through the roof, " he said.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged "deer " ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash resembling a red bullseye.

In recent years, the number of cases in West Virginia has climbed steadily, from 648 in 2017 to 1, 542 in 2021.

Monongalia County had 58 confirmed cases in 2020. That number more than doubled to 124 in 2021.

Those numbers are not reflective of nationwide trends.

Lucas Moore works out of the Monongalia County Health Department as a regional epidemiologist covering a seven-county area in northeast West Virginia.

He explained that the incidence rate of Lyme disease per 100, 000 people was 11.9 in the United States in 2015. It was 15.7 in West Virginia.

In 2016, it was 11.3 in the U.S. and 20.1 in West Virginia.

In 2017 the gap widened to 13.1 nationally versus 35.6 in West Virginia.

"And it just continues to go up like this. In 2020, the incidence rate for West Virginia for Lyme disease was 59.7 per 100, 000 people, " Moore said. "For the U.S. it was 5.5."

Moore explained those numbers include both probable and confirmed cases.

"Just looking at the graph, it's pretty shocking. We've been saying all along that if COVID never came around, we'd be focused on Lyme disease. New cases are growing at such a rate."

Sam DiStefano is a sanitarian and head tick wrangler for the MCHD.

He leads tick surveillance efforts during which white cloth is dragged through areas where ticks and people are likely to cross paths.

The bugs are gathered and sent to the state entomologist who creates heat maps for tick density and disease numbers.

DiStefano said the latest numbers indicate more than 20 % of the ticks provided to the state come back positive for Lyme disease.

Both Smith and Moore said it's time to beef up funding across the state for tick surveillance and other measures.

"Anything that has to do with public health, the better data we can get our hands on the better off we are, " Moore said. "The numbers just keep increasing. It's something we're going to be forced to pay attention to."


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