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Western Pennsylvania has seen a spike in Lyme disease cases

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 9:21 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A bottle of Lyme disease vaccine is shown next to a deer tick at Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital in Mars on Monday, April 15, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Veterinarian Dr. Hisham Ibrahim, 51, of Gibsonia, poses for a portrait behind the front desk at his offices at Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital in Mars on Monday, April 15, 2013. Dr. Hisham says he has treated 63 animals that have tested positive for Lyme disease since 2007. Before then he would see only one or two cases a year in his practice.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Veterinarian Dr. Hisham Ibrahim, 51, of Gibsonia, administers a Lyme disease vaccine to Xena as her owner Denise Mann, 36, of Mars, comforts the dog at Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital in Mars on Monday, April 15, 2013.

In the six years he's worked as a veterinarian in Butler County, Dr. Hisham Ibrahim has treated 63 dogs that tested positive for Lyme disease.

When Ibrahim practiced in the South Hills from 1999 to 2007, he encountered about two dogs each year with the disease.

“We have had very high numbers of Lyme disease in the past five years or so. It's a new development,” said Ibrahim.

Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks, can be treated with antibiotics and other medications to control joint pain and other symptoms such as fever, chills and body aches.

Humans are unlikely to get the disease from dogs unless they try to remove an engorged tick from the animal, Ibrahim said.

The spike of Lyme disease in dogs is mirrored in the number of people in Butler County who have contracted the disease.

In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 93 Butler County residents were reported to have contracted the disease, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The county has about 185,000 residents.

In Allegheny County, which has 1.22 million residents, there were 58 cases of Lyme disease in 2011. Westmoreland County reported 12 cases that year.

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 broadened the definition of Lyme disease, but numbers were on the rise even before then.

The range of the tick that carries Lyme disease is expanding, said Richard Ostfeld, an disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

“Western Pennsylvania and Western New York have seen a sharp increase in cases of Lyme disease,” he said.

The deer tick flourishes in forests, not in the heavily agricultural areas in the Midwest. In 2011, 96 percent of Lyme disease cases were reported from 13 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The disease was first identified in Lyme, Conn., in the early 1970s, when a mysterious series of rheumatoid arthritis cases occurred among children there.

The prevalence of the disease is linked to increasing populations of deer and mice, Ostfeld said.

It is also linked to the acorn crops from oak trees that are common in forests in the Northeast and Midwest, he said.

“This year, ticks might not be as bad. Acorns vary year to year quite a bit. Last fall was a total bust for acorns. They have crashed in numbers,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at

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