Uptick in Butler County Lyme disease cases being probed

| Saturday, June 30, 2012, 10:01 p.m.

Butler County has dozens more people diagnosed with Lyme disease than in surrounding counties, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

While authorities can't fully explain the numbers, last compiled in 2010, they said a program to monitor the tick population — a carrier of the crippling, but curable, disease — could help explain why the illness is so prevalent in the county of nearly 185,000 people.

“More likely it may reflect greater recognition of Lyme disease among the public and (medical) providers, and in particular, testing for Lyme disease,” Christine Cronkright, a spokeswoman for the health department, said Friday.

Local officials said they're more concerned about the disease this year because a mild winter and growing supply of acorns — a popular food for tick-bearing animals — boosted the tick population.

“The disease has some staying power,” said David Zazac, a public information assistant with the Allegheny County Health Department.

Representatives of the Butler Health System weren't available to comment on the Lyme numbers for Butler County. However, the state health department said there were 151 confirmed and probable cases in 2010 in the county.

By comparison, the state department said there were 18 cases in Allegheny County, five in Beaver County and 14 in Westmoreland County.

Allegheny County health officials reported 21 cases, three more than the state. Zazac said the higher number includes suspected cases, although officials only count cases affecting Allegheny County residents.

Numbers from the state show a gradual increase since 2000 in many Western Pennsylvania counties. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008 changed the definition of Lyme disease to make it more inclusive, but numbers were on the rise even before then.

Fotios Koumpouras, a rheumatologist at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side, said he's been getting more calls from patients, primary care doctors and emergency rooms with suspected cases of Lyme disease.

He said the number of animals infected with Lyme disease also is rising.

“It's an emerging disease creeping westward from Connecticut,” Koumpouras said.

County health department spokesman Guillermo Cole said an increasing deer and mouse population has meant ticks have more to feast on in the region.

“The increase in field mice, specifically the white-footed mouse, has to do with abundant acorn crops in recent years. Acorns are a nutritious food source for the rodents,” Cole said.

Cronkright said the state received $39,000 from the CDC to perform better follow-up on lab tests to see, in part, how large the tick population has become in areas where Lyme disease is emerging.

The remainder of the money will help pay for lab supplies for the state Department of Environmental Protection to collect and test ticks in western and northern parts of the state to determine the proportion of ticks that carry the disease.

Cranberry Manager Jerry Andree said residents have been reporting heavy tick infestation in parks and at the golf course this spring, but employees soon discovered that most of the bugs were six-legged weevils that don't carry Lyme disease.

He said employees have sprayed playing fields in the park, but people should stay out of tall grass and vegetation.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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