Lyme disease cases drop in NJ but data may be misleading
It sounds like good news but it really might not be.
According to the state Department of Health, there was a significant drop in the number of confirmed and probable Lyme disease cases last year compared to 2017.
Recent data shows 3,956 confirmed and probable Lyme cases in New Jersey in 2018, compared with 5,092 cases the previous year. That’s a drop of 22.3% but the stats may be misleading.
“I don’t make too much of it because we have a surveillance system for disease that’s totally broken,” said Pat Smith, the president of the Lyme Disease Association based in Wall.
She said the Health Department must analyze all reported Lyme disease cases in depth, and they do not have the manpower or the budget to adequately do this in the most comprehensive way possible.
She pointed out doctors may not be reporting all of the Lyme disease cases they get.
“The diagnostics are the same diagnostics we’ve had since 1994. They pick up about 50% of the cases," she said.
Smith said a bull's-eye rash may or may not show up if someone is infected with Lyme but many doctors won’t treat for the disease unless they see the rash.
“So we have people who have Lyme but they are not getting diagnosed or maybe it’s taking them a year or two years to get diagnosed," she said.
“Also, the doctors worry about if they report a large number of cases, they might be under some kind of a scrutiny from medical boards or insurers.”
Smith said the bottom line is we don’t really know how significant this new data is but “I don’t necessarily think it means that you’re seeing a trend that cases have dropped.”
She said it takes some people years to get an accurate Lyme disease diagnosis, “and then maybe you get counted in a totally different time frame, so it’s all very problematic.”
Smith also pointed out Lyme disease experts believe there are at least 10 times the number of actual Lyme disease cases as there are reported cases because many people don’t even realize they’ve been bitten by a tiny deer tick for weeks, months, or sometimes years, and may suffer from a wide variety of symptoms that range from mild to severe.
The state data shows that confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease dropped in most areas of New Jersey last year, and the numbers were down dramatically in Hudson, Middlesex and Warren counties. But Atlantic, Cape May and Salem counties reported Lyme increases.
Jenelle Fleming, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said in an emailed statement that “Lyme disease cases fluctuate from year to year for a variety of reasons.
"Weather and other factors may affect the tick population. The percentage of ticks that are infected may vary as well, as human contact with them (weather and other factors can also drive how much time humans may be exposed to ticks). So generally we look at trends over many years since there are different circumstances each year.”
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com