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Lyme disease cases skyrocket

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 9:14 p.m.
JC Schisler
Pictured are deer tick samples collected from Monroeville in June 2010. The smallest are nymphs and are the most infective. They feed on mice and pick up the Lyme disease bacteria from them. The medium-size ticks are in the adult phase, while the largest are engorged adults that have fed on a host.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jen Mankoff, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, contracted Lyme disease in 2006. It took about a year before doctors diagnosed the disease and then three more years of treatment before it was eradicated.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jen Mankoff, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, contracted Lyme disease in 2006. It took about a year before doctors diagnosed the disease and then three more years of treatment before it was eradicated.
JC Schisler
Bill Todaro, a medical entomologist with the Allegheny County Health Department, sorts through a selection of deer tick specimens inside his office in the Strip District. Todaro estimates that 50 percent of ticks in the 'nymph' stage in the eastern parts of the country are infected with Lyme Disease.

Shannon Thompson never considered Lyme disease when she noticed what appeared to be a bug bite in 2004 after an outing to Mingo Creek Park in Washington County.

Thompson, 42, of Upper St. Clair said she developed a rash, but it wasn't the signature bullseye configuration associated with Lyme disease.

“I didn't know the symptoms (for Lyme),” she said. “I didn't have insurance at the time, and I didn't want to go see a doctor for a bug bite. That was a mistake.”

Thompson is among a growing list of Western Pennsylvania residents who have contracted Lyme, which is transmitted by deer ticks. Confirmed cases in the region skyrocketed by 240 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to the most recent Pennsylvania Health Department statistics.

“We're seeing a significant increase over the last couple of years,” said Dr. Ron Vorhees, acting director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “People need to be aware of it to prevent it and take precautions. Doctors need to be aware of it to suspect it, diagnose it and treat it.”

The number of Pennsylvanians diagnosed with Lyme fluctuates from year to year depending on variables such as weather, tick populations and increased awareness.

Lyme cases statewide increased by nearly 30 percent during the past five years from 3,933 in 2008 to 5,033 in 2012, according to the state health department. The increase was much more pronounced in the southwest, which includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The region had a 75 percent increase from 2010 to 2011, with total cases rising from 315 to 552. The total in 2007 was 162. The state health department could not provide 2012 regional numbers.

“We used to have around 10 cases a year here at Children's Hospital, even as little as five years ago,” said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, an infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “Now, we see more than 200 cases a year, which is a huge epidemic.”

Nowalk said medical experts aren't sure what's causing the increase. What they do know is the deer tick population is increasing and more of them are carrying Lyme disease bacteria. Deer ticks are about the size of a sesame seed, and have become prevalent throughout the state, according to medical experts.

The most important thing, doctors say, is for people to seek immediate treatment if they think they've been bitten. Lyme usually is treated with antibiotics.

The disease typically, but not always, starts with a rash, often in the shape of a bullseye. Symptoms include headache, fever, muscle pain, joint pain, and other flu-like disorders. If left untreated it can lead to heart disease, serious neurological problems and severe arthritis.

Dr. Fotios Koumpouras, a lyme disease expert at Allegheny General Hospital, said he's seen enough complicated Lyme cases that he plans to open a special clinic at the North Side hospital for treatment of the disease.

A major problem is that Lyme mimics many other ailments, and that often leads to misdiagnosis. Symptoms also come and go, further complicating diagnosis.

“Most physicians haven't seen a patient with Lyme disease,” Vorhees said.

It took doctors more than seven years to diagnose Thompson, who still suffers lingering symptoms.

Jen Mankoff, 39, of Shadyside said it took about a year for her diagnosis and she only figured out what was going on after a massage therapist suggested she had Lyme.

“I had a doctor at the time who told me to keep waiting,” Mankoff said. “I went and told her I wanted tested for Lyme disease. The blood test came back positive.”

Mankoff belongs to a statewide advocacy group that has been lobbying the Legislature for a campaign to increase public awareness and educate doctors about the disease.

Julia Wagner, president of the Pennsylvania Lyme Resources Network, suggests something similar to that created for West Nile Virus, which includes public awareness and testing and eradication of mosquitoes that carry the virus.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, sponsored a bill that mandates a Pennsylvania Department of Health task force to study the disease and make recommendations on how to address it.

“It's always been under reported, under diagnosed and misdiagnosed,” said Greenleaf, whose son contracted the disease and was cured through antibiotics.

“There is a need for Pennsylvanians to be aware of this, both medical professionals, nurses and government agencies and to make sure they're educated about this. I think (the bill) has a good chance of passing this year.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or

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