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Why Lyme Disease Is 10 Times More Common Than Previously Thought

In 2011, 96 percent of Lyme disease cases were concentrated in 13 states. Map by the PBS NewsHour.

Around 300,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Lyme disease annually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Sunday, 10 times more than previously thought.

Using a trio of indicators including medical insurance claims, an analysis of clinical labs and a survey of the general public, the CDC concluded previous estimates of 20,000 to 30,000 cases a year based on physician’s reports to states was only a drop in the bucket.

Three hundred thousand cases a year would put Lyme disease on the same scale as gonorrhea, which at 322,000 cases was the second most-commonly reported infectious disease in 2011. (Chlamydia is No. 1 at 1.4 million infections.)

“This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention,” Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for the CDC’s Lyme disease program, said in a statement.

Tuesday on the PBS NewsHour, senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown talks to the Boston Globe’s Beth Daley about their series on Lyme disease, Bitten by Uncertainty. (Daley’s most recent article, “When the ‘cure’ doesn’t end the pain,” can be read here.)

The disease, which is transmitted to people via bites by poppy seed-size deer ticks, can cause fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash that looks like a bullseye. If caught early, Lyme can be treated with a round of antibiotics. But if left untreated (or if the infected person is unaware they have it), it can spread throughout the body and may have long-lasting affects on the joints, heart and nervous system. The CDC has a list of resources including how to remove a tick (hint: get out your needle-nose tweezers and put the matches away) and what to do if you are one of 10 to 20 percent of patients who continue to have symptoms after the antibiotics run their course.

The vast majority of Lyme cases are concentrated in New England and the upper Midwest. In 2011, 96 percent of infections were in 13 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. The CDC report did not indicate a change in the geographical spread of where most infections are found.