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Another La Nina Winter Means More Lyme Disease Cases

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One problem is that tests thus far have picked up both 'free' antibodies from old Lyme disease infections (even a year earlier) as well as antibodies from current infections, Schutzer says. The new Lyme disease lab procedure his group has devised is capable of detecting antibodies from only the active, newly acquired infection. In a test involving 168 patients with obvious Lyme disease and 147 without the disease, 96% of those with Lyme disease tested positive, and only two of those without tested positive. "It means that the group that didn't have the classical rash ... the group that needed it most, was found to be positive," says Schutzer.

False-negative tests, when people test negative but really have the condition, are the most critical because Lyme disease treatment is most successful when initiated in the first six months, says Donta. If Lyme disease is caught within the first half-year to year, the results will be much better than if the person has had it for more than three or four years. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of symptoms people just accept because they're not overwhelming. They're almost embarrassed to go to their doctors. They feel like they should be able to put up with it. It's an insidious disease."

Many rheumatologists diagnose the disease as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, but that's not correct, says Donta. "It is amenable to [antibiotic] treatment. But the longer you wait before getting treatment, the harder it is to treat."

Nancy Shadick, MD, MPH, director of the Lyme Disease Center at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, tells WebMD, "The great majority of [Lyme disease] cases can be treated effectively with antibiotics. In rare cases, or cases where people don't have treatment promptly, it can be somewhat difficult to treat, requiring another course of antibiotics or perhaps ... antibiotics [given in the vein]."

A very small number of patients -- despite treatment -- may develop 'post-Lyme disease syndrome,' which resembles fibromyalgia (with fatigue, joint aches, and difficulty concentrating), Shadick says. "It's very important to see a doctor and make sure there is not residual arthritis or joint swelling, residual signs of meningitis (infection of the fluid surrounding the spinal cord) or nerve damage, or even to make sure that you didn't contract a different illness [such as hypothyroidism] that could be mistaken as post-Lyme disease syndrome," she tells WebMD.

As far as prevention, the CDC recommends Lyme disease vaccinations for anyone between ages 15 and 70 who are considered at high risk and whose exposure to tick-infested areas is frequent or prolonged. However, Mather adds a caveat, "The Lyme vaccine doesn't protect against similar-appearing [though rarer] infections like ehrlichiosis or borrelia, which are transmitted by ticks also. From a public health standpoint, the vaccine gives people a false sense of security. They think they don't have to worry, but they do have to worry about these other types of infections."

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