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Insect-borne Lyme disease cases up sharply in Butler County

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 3:19 p.m.
Here's a look at how small deer ticks are.
Here's a look at how small deer ticks are.
This is a photo of a deer tick. Local officials said they’re concerned that after a mild winter, the number of Lyme disease cases will rise this year. Ticks are a carrier of the disease, which can cause arthritis and other health problems.  ptr-ticks-070112
This is a photo of a deer tick. Local officials said they’re concerned that after a mild winter, the number of Lyme disease cases will rise this year. Ticks are a carrier of the disease, which can cause arthritis and other health problems. ptr-ticks-070112

Reported cases of Lyme disease have spiked in Butler County, jumping from zero in 2000 to 332 in 2013, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The county leads Western Pennsylvania in reported cases of Lyme disease, which experts attribute to growing tick populations and rising awareness, according to the agency.

The increase makes sense, given how heavily forested the county is and how many people participate in outdoor activities, said UPMC infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja.

“But I can't really say if it's because of increased recognition, more people are getting tested, and this leads to higher diagnosis rates, or if it is actually because more people are coming into contact with ticks,” he said.

Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium and is transmitted to humans by deer ticks.

Joseph Forrester, medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said tick populations are tied to rodent and deer populations. As they increase, so do tick populations and the likelihood people will come into contact with ticks carrying the disease.

Typical symptoms include a red, bull's-eye rash at the bite site, fever, headache and joint aches, said Dr. Jeffrey Moldovan, an emergency physician at Grove City Medical Center, which treats patients from Butler County.

About 3 percent of tick bites result in Lyme disease, which is a large number of people given the number of bites, Moldovan said.

“We've been seeing a lot more tick bites and ticks attached than in the past,” he said.

To transmit the disease, a tick needs to have been attached for more than 24 hours and must be engorged. Those who think they have been infected should see their general practitioner or go to an emergency department, Moldovan said.

The disease is diagnosed through blood tests and treated with antibiotics. If caught and treated early, patients typically make a full recovery, he said.

Butler County's 2013 total reflected a large increase from 2012, when 235 cases were reported.

The 2013 total was third highest in the state, behind Chester and Bucks counties, with 489 and 337 cases, respectively. Pennsylvania reported 5,754 cases total, more than any other state, according to the health department.

Infection rates are reported to the CDC by state and local agencies. In areas where the disease is common, the figure can be inaccurate because of under-reporting.

To avoid tick bites, Forrester said to use insect repellent with 30 percent DEET and special clothing with built-in repellent. Avoiding heavily wooded areas with tall grasses and leaf debris also will reduce chances of being bitten.

Anyone who has been exposed to ticks should bathe as soon as possible and check themselves for ticks, paying special attention to armpits, the backs of knees and the groin area, and should remove ticks right away, Forrester said.

Corinne Kennedy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7823 or ckennedy@tribweb.com.

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