A study published in BMJ Open suggests incidence of Lyme disease may be three times higher than previous estimates suggest and there could be more than 8,000 new cases in the UK this year.
“The incidence of Lyme disease in the UK is about threefold higher than previously estimated”
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection passed on through the bite of an infected tick and has become the most common tick-borne infection in many parts of Europe and the USA.
Early signs can include a red rash around the area of the bite with flu-like and sometimes neurological symptoms – although symptoms can vary or not be apparent.
Without prompt treatment with antibiotics there is a risk or permanent joint and nerve damage.
The current official estimate for the UK is around 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease per year.
However, higher rates seen in neighbouring countries prompted concern this may be too low.
A team of researchers from the UK and Germany analysed data submitted by GPs to the Clinical Practice Research Datalink database, which covers around 8.4 million people from 658 general practices, equivalent to around 8% of the UK population.
They looked at data submitted between 2001 and 2012 and found a rapid rise in the number of cases of Lyme disease over that time period.
The annual total number of cases recorded in the database increased from 60 in 2001 to 595 in 2012 leading to an estimated incidence rate of around 12 cases per 100 000 individuals per year and a UK total of 7738 LD cases in 2012.
The figure for 2012 was around three times higher than previous estimates suggested, and if these trends continue, the number of new UK cases could top 8000 in 2019, the researchers concluded.
Lyme disease was detected in every UK region with highest incidence rates and largest number of cases in Scotland – possibly because of its wetter climate and popularity as a hiking destination – followed by South West and South England.
“Greater awareness of the risks may also lead to more rapid diagnosis and treatment”
The researchers said their findings showed there was a need to raise awareness of steps people can take to avoid infection such steering clear of dense vegetation where ticks flourish – particularly wooded or grassy areas in moist and humid environments – using insect repellent, tucking trousers into socks and searching their bodies for ticks after hiking in high risk areas.
“The incidence of Lyme disease in the UK is about threefold higher than previously estimated, and people are at risk throughout the UK. These results should lead to increased awareness of the need for preventive measures,” said the paper.
More awareness of the risks could also help people get the prompt treatment they need, the researchers suggested.
“Greater awareness of the risks may also lead to more rapid diagnosis and treatment which is important to prevent long term morbidity,” said the paper.