Ignoring Lyme: What are state, towns doing?
Last year, New Hamsphire had one human case of West Nile virus and no confirmed human cases of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), both mosquito-born infections. State data show that since 2010, there have been three human cases of West Nile virus and no human cases of EEE in New Hampshire. By contrast, since 2010 there have been 5,792 either confirmed or probable human cases of Lyme disease in New Hampshire.
The Lyme numbers might be 10 times worse. Last August the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in which it warned that Lyme infection figures are probably 10 times higher than reported. If accurate, that would mean that instead of 5,792 New Hampshire Lyme cases in the last four years, there were around 57,000.
Sticking to the official numbers, New Hampshire’s Lyme disease infection rate has grown from 14.8 infections per 100,000 people in 2003 to 75.9 in 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported in April, using federal data. In a decade, New Hampshire went from the 13th highest Lyme infection rate in the United States to the highest. But the state’s own numbers include probable as well as confirmed Lyme cases, and they show a much higher infection rate.
In 2008, Carroll County’s infection rate was 33.3 per 100,000 people, according to state figures. Last year it was 126.3. Cheshire County’s rate went from 46.5 in 2008 to 94 last year. Grafton’s went from 20.3 to 87. According to state figures, New Hampshire’s statewide infection rate is 127.6 per 100,000 people, a stunning figure.
Our human infection rate is so high because our tick infection rate is so high. Most deer ticks in New Hampshire, the ones that carry Lyme disease, are infected. The state put the figure at 60 percent four years ago. It is probably higher now. In Sullivan County, 85 percent of deer ticks were infected in 2010.
And yet public and government attention remains focused on West Nile and EEE, two viruses that infect tiny fractions of the mosquito population and only a few people a year, sometimes none at all. Municipalities spray for mosquitos to control the rare West Nile and EEE, but few if any spray for ticks.
In Pennsylvania, legislators have created a task force to deal with what some are calling an epidemic of Lyme disease — and the infection rate there is less than half New Hampshire’s. In New Hampshire, what is arguably an epidemic has received little attention. The state Department of Health and Human Services is putting together its first tick-borne disease prevention plan, to be released this summer.
“Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention,” Dr. Paul Mead, the chief of epidemiology and surveillance for CDC’s Lyme disease program, said last August. And still most state and local governments are doing little to nothing about it as thousands of people become infected with the potentially debilitating disease.