Summer months bring the threat of Lyme disease, and along with it often comes hysteria. President Clinton even named the week of June 6 "Lyme Disease Awareness Week." In some instances, Lyme disease can be prolonged, painful and even life-threatening. There is a dispute, though, over the number of confirmed cases and whether physicians are relying on inaccurate tests for the disease.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that only 23 percent of patients admitted to the New England Medical Center for Lyme disease were actually infected. Inaccurate testing was blamed for the misdiagnoses. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that tests for Lyme disease are inaccurate between 5 percent and 30 percent of the time.
There is also a lack of accurate statistics on how many cases of Lyme disease are handled by physicians. Often, private doctors don't report individual cases to state health officials. Dr. Jack Grigor of the state health department estimates only 10 percent to 20 percent of Lyme disease cases are reported. If Dr. Grigor is correct, the 185 reported cases in Maryland last year translate to somewhere between 925 to 1,850 cases statewide in 1992. That makes Lyme disease a bigger public health risk than the reported cases would indicate.
State officials estimate that five percent of Maryland's deer ticks are carriers of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, which is low for the East Coast. Within Maryland, the eastern coastal areas have the highest percentage, with Wicomico and Kent counties at the top. Carroll County ranks high, too. The tick favors brush or tall grass bordering wooded areas, so if you frequent such areas, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. Tuck in your clothing; pants legs should also be tucked in and taped to socks. Insect repellents containing DEET have proved effective.
These steps aren't flawless. And we still aren't certain about the extent of the problem. But taking precautions is advised. Lyme disease remains a serious public health concern.