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New dashboard tracks prevalence of ticks and Lyme disease in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania dashboard tracks prevalence of ticks and Lyme disease
Pennsylvania dashboard tracks prevalence of ticks and Lyme disease 02:49

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Preparing for the Summer also means preparing for tick season here in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Health Department wants you to stay informed with a new online tickborne disease dashboard so you can stay vigilant before heading outside to enjoy the warmer months and keep the creepy crawlers off your family and pets.

"At this point, it's looking like a typically bad tick year," said Leah Lind, the Lyme and tickborne disease coordinator within the Bureau of Epidemiology at the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The state health department launched the dashboard that tracks Lyme disease and three other tickborne diseases, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis and ehrlichiosis. The data shows case counts across the state and cases per 100,000 people in each county.

"So that Pennsylvanians can be a little bit more aware of their risk in real-time," Lind said.

According to the dashboard, Allegheny County has about five cases of Lyme disease per 100,000 people right now, though that number is more than 10 times higher in Armstrong County and 12 times higher in Indiana County.

The highest case count of Lyme disease in the Pittsburgh area in 2024 so far includes 62 cases in Allegheny County and 113 in Westmoreland County.

The dashboard shows in the first full week of March 2024 that there was a significant spike in tick-bite-related emergency room visits in the state, three times higher than the average in the prior three years.

Even though ticks are small, the health effects can be big. Lind said officials have seen an uptick in illnesses, including Lyme disease, the most commonly reported in Pennsylvania.

She said symptoms can be mild if it's caught and treated early.

"Unfortunately, if it's not treated early, it can result in some more severe symptoms and disease presentation. So, we do really want Pennsylvanians to be aware that almost everyone in Pennsylvania is at risk of Lyme disease," Lind said.

"In Pennsylvania, we're definitely seeing an increase in Lyme disease. That seems absolutely clear to us. And it's actually being seen nationwide, as well the increases in anaplasmosis. We feel that is real, and anaplasmosis is being more common in Pennsylvania," she added.

The dashboard was also designed to be useful for doctors so they can get a sense of what's circulating in their area and what to test patients for.

What is Lyme disease? 

Infected ticks transmit Lyme disease to people through bites, the CDC says

Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash that looks like a target. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system. 

The CDC says most cases of Lyme disease can be successfully treated with the use of antibiotics.

Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, infecting an estimated 476,000 Americans a year, according to the CDC. Pennsylvania, along with several others in the northeast, is considered a high incidence state. 

The Pennsylvania Health Department says in 2022, the state ranked ninth in the country for the number of Lyme disease cases reported by population. 

How to prevent tick bites

The Health Department says people in wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter are at the greatest risk of tick exposure, so avoiding those areas and walking in the center of trails is a good way to prevent bites.

Experts also recommend using an EPA-approved insect repellent on exposed skin and wearing light-colored clothing so it's easier to spot crawling ticks

When you come back inside, conduct a full-body tick check on yourself and your pets, and take a bath or shower within two hours. 

If you do find a tick attached to your skin, the CDC says you should remove it as soon as possible. The CDC has instructions for how to remove a tick online.

Lind recommends using permethrin to repel ticks. You can spray it on shoes, clothing and any outdoor gear. She said it kills ticks, and you typically only need to re-apply it every six weeks or so.

She said after outdoor fun, be sure to shower and check for ticks. It takes more time to recover if you get sick, and don't forget to protect and check your pets. If you find a latched-on tick, carefully remove the entire tick using tweezers.

"As we move into these warmer months, ticks are going to be out, people are going to be out. So, we are hoping that this is going to be an early indicator to people," Lind said.

Lind said if you find a rash that's a bullseye, round, oval or a ring with no center, you should see your doctor whether you know you were bit by a tick or not, especially if you have a fever or flu-like symptoms.

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