Newly released data is the latest to show that Lyme disease cases are on the rise in the US. The survey found that private insurance claims related to the tick-borne disease have risen significantly since 2007, including more recently in the past five years. This relative increase was especially dramatic in rural areas.
The research comes from FAIR Health, an independent non-profit organization that: formed in 2009 as part of a settlement between New York State and local health insurers over alleged fraudulent out-of-network charges. Since then, the organization, in collaboration with health policy researchers, has regularly collects and analyzes a wealth of private insurance claims data, in what they believe to be the largest database of its kind in the US
For this new report, researchers tracked claims indicating a Lyme disease diagnosis dating back to 2007. Between 2007 and 2021, they found that claims from people living in cities and other urban areas increased by 65%, and by 357% from people. in rural areas. The report is also an update of an analysis conducted by FAIR Health in 2017, and Lyme disease diagnoses have continued to increase since then as well. Between 2016 and 2021, claims from urban areas increased by 19% and by 60% in rural areas. An accompanying infographic can be seen here.
“In general, diagnoses are more common in urban areas because the population is larger in urban areas. However, our data indicates that Lyme disease diagnoses are increasing faster in rural areas,” Thomas Swift, chief operating officer at FAIR Health, told Gizmodo in an email.
The latest findings are consistent with other Research indicating that Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are becoming more common over time. Based on their own analysis of commercial insurance data, for example, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that more than 450,000 Americans are now diagnosed and treated annually for Lyme — more than 10 times the number of reported cases and more than the 300,000 annual cases previously estimated by the CDC.
HONEST health‘s data also suggests that people outside areas where Lyme is known to be endemic are more likely to encounter these disease-carrying ticks, at least in some years. For example, in 2017, claims from North Carolina rose significantly, with the state having the third-highest percentage of Lyme-related claims against all diagnoses that year. By 2021, North Carolina was no longer in the top five, but Maine had supplanted it as third on the list — the latter state had never been in the top five before. In both 2017 and 2021, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont were the other four states with the highest rates of Lyme-related diagnoses.
Lyme disease is caused by certain Borrelia bacteria (usually B. burgdorferi), and most cases are easily treated with antibiotics, especially if caught early. But a small percentage of people report persistent symptoms after infection, also known as: Lyme disease syndrome after treatment. There is no strong evidence that these symptoms are caused by ongoing infection by the bacteria — a theory propagated by “chronic Lyme” proponents — but it may be linked to immune dysfunction following infection. People whose infection is not diagnosed and cured early can also develop more serious complications that can persist even after treatment, such as nerve pain and muscle weakness.
Interestingly enough, FAIR Health‘s other findings provide support for the increased risk of long-term disease in Lyme patients. Using their data, they compared the outcomes of Lyme patients with the overall population and found that they were more likely to be later diagnosed with fatigue, malaise and other health conditions, a pattern seen across all age groups.
There are ongoing efforts to develop an effective vaccine against Lyme. But with climate change going largely unchecked, experts to expect that Lyme and other tick-related diseases will be an ever-growing thorn in the side — one that doctors and researchers should keep a close eye on.
“The current pandemic has focused clinical attention on Covid-19, but other diseases remain public health issues that deserve attention. The data from FAIR Health indicates that Lyme disease has not gone away, but continues to grow,” said Swift.