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Lyme disease numbers spiking in Western Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Cases of Lyme disease have spiked in Western Pennsylvania as the number of deer ticks in the region continues to grow.

Deer tick numbers have been steadily growing after the disease-carrying insect was nearly wiped out when mining operations thinned deer herds in the region decades ago, said Steve Jacobs, an entomologist at Penn State University. The ticks need deer to breed.

“This species of tick is coming back and repopulating, so places where Lyme disease wasn't a problem before will see it become a problem,” Jacobs said.

Butler led Western Pennsylvania counties in cases of Lyme disease with 332 reported in 2013, followed by Armstrong County with 232, according to the state Department of Health. Armstrong had only five cases reported in 2006. About 3 percent of tick bites result in Lyme disease, health officials said.

“Ticks never went away completely, but they thinned out so much that they've become more noticeable over the last several years,” Jacobs said.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said Lyme disease, caused by a bacteria transmitted to humans by ticks that can infect joints, the heart and the brain, is almost always treatable with antibiotics if caught early.

“When it goes undiagnosed and untreated, serious complications may develop, such as chronic arthritis and neurologic problems,” Hacker said.

Early Lyme disease symptoms are often similar to a mild flu and bites do not always result in a tell-tale “bull's-eye rash” that is often a recognizable sign of being bitten, she said.

Health officials recommend people:

• Avoid wooded or bushy areas where ticks are likely live.

• Stay on trails when hiking and avoid brushing against foliage, plants or high grass.

• Cover exposed skin with clothing or insect repellent.

• Check for ticks and bathe after being outdoors;

• Check pets for ticks.

Brad Pedersen and Aaron Aupperlee are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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