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March 06, 2020

New model makes reporting Lyme disease easier

Almost 162 counties in the United States could have unreported cases, researchers say

Illness Lyme Disease
New model makes reporting Lyme disease easier Provided image/U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A data model developed by Columbia researchers shows about 162 U.S. counties may have Lyme disease cases not yet been reported to the CDC. Underreporting of Lyme disease makes prevention and early treatment a challenge.

There are about 30,000 reported cases of Lyme disease a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; whereas, the actual number of people diagnosed with the disease is estimated to be closer to 300,000.

Underreporting makes prevention and early treatment of Lyme disease a challenge. A new data model developed by Columbia University researchers, however, may improve identification of common infection hotspots.

"We believe our analysis can help predict the trajectory of where Lyme disease will spread," said Maria Pilar Fernandez, lead author of the study.

The model developed with the assistance of researchers from RTI International analyzed 17 years of data that tracked the geographic spread of this infection. About 500,000 cases were reported to the CDC across the U.S. between 2000 and 2017.

The CDC collects Lyme disease data from state and local health departments, which are notified by doctors, hospitals and laboratories.

"We were able to show that about 162 U.S. counties may already have Lyme disease, but they haven't yet been reported to the CDC," study co-author Maria Diuk-Wasser, an associate professor at Columbia, said.

Although Lyme disease cases have been reported in almost every state, the researchers said most of the cases have been in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

They added that accurate case assessment depends on many variables including provider awareness, testing methods, reporting practices, state budgets and personnel.

"In the future, the model can be expanded," Fernandez said. "We hope to continue to keep track of the spread and inform authorities about areas where Lyme disease is likely to emerge."

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a bite of a tick. It can be difficult to diagnose; however, a rash that looks like a bullseye commonly appears around the site of the tick bite. If caught early, it can be effectively treated with antibiotics.

Serious complications like joint stiffness, brain inflammation and nerve pain can develop when the infection is not caught early enough or does not respond to treatment.

The report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on March 3, 2020.

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