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Reported cases of tickborne diseases in U.S. reached new highs in 2017

blacklegged tick
The Tick-Borne Disease Working Group report recommends that Congress increase federal resources to address the health threat posed by tickborne diseases.

State and local governments reported a record number of cases of Lyme disease and other tickborne illnesses to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2017, according to a government report released earlier this week.

Last year, the total number of reported illnesses spread by ticks was 59,349, up from 48,610 cases in 2016. Lyme disease made up three-quarters — almost 42,743 — of the cases in 2017. That’s an increase from 36,429 in 2016.

But reported cases of all other tickborne diseases also rose last year, according to the CDC. The 2017 totals include the following: anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis (7,718 cases), Rocky Mountain spotted fever (6,248), babesiosis (2,368), tularemia (239) and Powassan virus (33).

The true number of cases of tickborne diseases in the United States is almost certainly much higher, however. The CDC has estimated that Lyme disease makes more than 300,000 Americans sick each year —a sevenfold increase over last year’s official number.

“Tick-borne diseases have rapidly become a serious and growing threat to public health in the United States,” the new report says.

“As tick populations continue to grow and infected ticks expand geographically, the threat to human health intensifies,” it adds.

As the report points out, the number of tick-related diseases reported in the U.S. doubled between 2004 and 2016. During that period, researchers also discovered seven new tickborne pathogens (bacteria, viruses or parasites) that infect people.

Minnesota’s numbers

Minnesota is among the states with the highest number of reports of tickborne illnesses. In 2017, Minnesota had 1,408 confirmed cases of Lyme disease and another 910 probable cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. That’s up from 1,305 confirmed cases and 821 probable cases in 2016.

The state also had 638 confirmed cases of anaplasmosis, 59 cases of babesiosis and 7 cases of Powassan virus in 2017.

Reported cases of tick borne diseases — U.S. states and territories, 2004-2016
Reported cases of tick borne diseases — U.S. states and territories, 2004-2016
The reason for the increase in cases of tickborne illnesses in Minnesota and nationally is unclear, but several factors can affect the numbers from year to year, including temperature, rainfall, humidity and the number of available hosts for the ticks to feed on, such as mice and deer.

The number of cases reported is also influenced by how actively health providers test for and report cases of tickborne illnesses. (Minnesota is known to have one of the better reporting systems.)

A call for more funding

The new report was released by the 14-member Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The group was established in 2016 under the 21stCenturies Cure Act.

The report recommends that Congress increase federal resources to address the health threat posed by tickborne diseases. The priorities the group set for that funding include better methods of early diagnosis and treatment, more rapid and accurate lab tests, a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that enable tickborne pathogens to overcome the human body’s immune response, and more effective ways of using antibiotics or other therapies for treatment.

The report notes that little federal money is spent on tickborne illnesses, especially given how many Americans become ill with these diseases.

In 2016, for example, the number of confirmed Lyme disease cases (36,429) wasn’t much smaller than the 38,782 HIV/AIDS cases reported that same year. Yet in fiscal year 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the CDC received just $39 million in government funding for Lyme disease, much less the $3.8 billion allocated to the agencies for their work on HIV/AIDS.

Hepatitis C, which was believed to infect about 3,000 Americans in 2016, received a total of $141 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2017 — again, well below the amount allocated for Lyme disease.

And Lyme disease — which is caused by a bite of a bacterium-infected blacklegged tick — can be quite destructive to a person’s health. If not treated promptly, the infection can lead to heart problems, neurological problems (including meningitis), severe muscle pain and headaches, and lingering, overwhelming fatigue.

“Patients whose lives are devastated by the ongoing effects of tick-borne illnesses are counting on emerging scientific research, evidence-based policy, and the healthcare establishment — including the federal government — to provide solutions,” said Admiral Breet Giroir, M.D., HHS the assistant secretary for health, in a released statement.

For more information: The working group’s report has been posted online. For more about tickborne illnesses here in Minnesota, including how to prevent them, go to the Minnesota Department of Health’s website.

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