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Lyme disease warning sounded; Mild, wet weather could promote tick-borne illness


After a mild winter, a wet spring and a steady increase in reported cases of Lyme disease in Maryland, state health officials are alerting the public to take particular care guarding against ticks this summer.

"Ticks do well in a mild winter, and they like a moist environment," said Karon Damewood, chief of zoonotic diseases for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "They've had a good opportunity to populate."

The incidence of Lyme disease has climbed consistently in the past several years, spurred in part by thriving deer populations, which support the disease-carrying ticks. In 1997, health officials confirmed 494 cases in Maryland. In 1998, the state reported 656 cases, and last year the number of reports reached 899.

In light of that trend, warnings to outdoor workers were recently issued by Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, cautioning laborers to be alert to deer ticks.

Workers in construction, landscaping, forestry, surveying and other outdoor professions might want to talk to a physician about being vaccinated against the disease, said David Weld, executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation in Somers, N.Y.

A vaccine against Lyme disease became available last year. It is 80 percent effective and requires three shots over the course of a year.

The swelling deer population has made Lyme disease a growing threat in suburban neighborhoods, which have become inviting grazing lands for expanding herds.

Although deer do not play a significant role in the transmission of Lyme disease, female ticks depend on the blood of deer for food.

The disease, which can be serious if left untreated, is spread through the bite from a deer tick. Unlike the kinds of ticks found on dogs, deer ticks can be as small as the head of pin and can be difficult to detect.

As precautions, outdoor workers can wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks into which pant legs can be tucked. Wearing light-colored clothing can make it easier to spot deer ticks.

A tick must be attached to the skin for 24 hours before it can transmit the disease. If a tick is discovered on the body, Weld said, it's important to use fine-tipped tweezers to pluck it off as close to the skin as possible. Squeezing the tick during removal increases the risk of transmitting the disease.

Symptoms of Lyme disease include a rash, joint aches, fatigue and fever. It can be treated with antibiotics if caught in its early stages. Left untreated, the disease can cause damage to the heart and nervous system.

The increase in reported cases of Lyme disease could be attributable in part to increased public awareness and improved reporting by doctors, Weld and Damewood said.

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