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Butler, Westmoreland, Allegheny counties make Pa.'s top 10 for Lyme disease

Ben Schmitt
| Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, 5:12 p.m.
Here's a look at how small deer ticks are.
Here's a look at how small deer ticks are.
A free screening of 'Under Our Skin,” an award-winning 2008 documentary exploring the Lyme disease epidemic, is set for 6 p.m. March 23 in the Monroeville Senior Citizen Center.
A free screening of 'Under Our Skin,” an award-winning 2008 documentary exploring the Lyme disease epidemic, is set for 6 p.m. March 23 in the Monroeville Senior Citizen Center.

Three Western Pennsylvania counties had some of the state's highest numbers of Lyme disease cases last year, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Health.

Butler County tallied the most cases in the state with 641. Westmoreland was third with 577 cases. Allegheny had 403, ranking eighth.

Overall, there were 11,443 Lyme cases in the state in 2016, close to the 12,092 unofficial total released in December by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The Pennsylvania data show that Lyme continues to be on the rise. There were roughly 2,000 more cases of Lyme disease reported in 2016 than 2015, when there was 9,427. In addition, Pennsylvania led the nation in Lyme cases last year , according to the CDC.

"We know that mosquito and tick-borne illnesses are part of living in Pennsylvania," Dr. Rachel Levine, acting health secretary and physician general, said in a statement. "But there are easy ways to protect yourself and reduce your risk of illness."

Lyme symptoms can be debilitating. Common symptoms include a fever, chills, joint aches, swollen lymph nodes, headache and fatigue and sometimes a rash that looks like a bullseye from the tick bite. Most people recover with antibiotic treatment. If untreated, the infection can lead to arthritis and other severe problems.

Tina Prins, 46, is vice president of marketing for PA Lyme Resource Network , a statewide Lyme disease advocacy, education and support group. She has suffered from chronic Lyme symptoms since being diagnosed in 2013 when she pulled a tick off of the back of her left knee.

Her symptoms have ranged from vertigo and arthritis to brain fog and exhaustion.

"At times, I felt like I was a 90 year old," said Prins, who lives in Mechanicsburg. "Lights would bring me to my knees. It hurt to grip my hand around a steering wheel. Now, I have some good days and bad days."

Prins said her doctor surmised that she may have been bitten by a tick as a child and the second bite exacerbated her symptoms.

"I was probably bitten more than once and my immune system was strong enough to put it down," she said. "I would say the last bite made everything worse. It's a very complex disease. A lot of people who have Lyme will test negative, leading to misdiagnoses."

The causative agent of Lyme disease is the bacterium Borrelia borgdorferi and it is spread through the bite of a species of ticks, commonly known as deer ticks or blacklegged ticks, in the Northeast. Deer ticks have been found in all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

"In the overwhelming majority of cases, the tick must be attached for at least 36 to 48 hours before it is able to transmit the Lyme bacterium to a person," said Dr. Thomas Walsh, an Allegheny Health Network infectious disease specialist. "Ticks embedded for less than 36 hours are remarkably unlikely to cause Lyme disease."

One key in protection against Lyme disease is avoiding tick-infested habitats, including areas with tall grass or dense shrubbery. Repellents and protective clothing are also helpful, along with frequent tick checks after being outside.

Homeowners can minimize tick habitats in their yards by raking leaves, cutting grass frequently, removing weeds and removing dead plant material.

Those who find a tick on their body, or suspect they've found one, should consult a doctor.

"Just as strong sun or severe weather demand outdoors enthusiasts be cognizant of their surroundings, the spread of ticks and related Lyme Disease is requiring the hiker and hunter, angler and birder all to be prepared and proactive when they enter our state parks and forestlands where ticks may be prevalent," said Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "DCNR is committed to educating both our visitors and employees on the best practices, ensuring safe play and work afield."

Walsh, the infectious disease specialist, said experts are working on strategies to produce a Lyme disease vaccine, but a solution is probably several years away.

Each year, more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC. However, the CDC estimates the total number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease could exceed 300,000 annually.

"We really need improved testing for diagnosis," Prins said. "This is not just going to go away."

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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