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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Lyme disease incidence on rise in Iredell

4 cases reported so far this year, but changes could affect count

KATHRYN WELLIN - Staff Writer

The incidence of Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial illness, is rising in Iredell County.

Last year, 16 cases were reported, the highest number since 1990, and up from seven the year before. So far this year, four cases have been reported. Yet the number of reported cases likely will start dropping due to changes in state reporting requirements last fall, said Rhonda Burrell, an Iredell County Health Department nurse who compiles the report.

Statewide, the number of cases has risen from 47 in 2000 to 156 in 2003.

When caught early, Lyme disease can be treated with oral antibiotics. When treatment is delayed, daily IV antibiotic therapy for a month or more is required.

Early symptoms mimic the flu, such as headache, fever and fatigue. Sometimes, there is a round rash around the tick bite, but often people do not realize they've been bitten. Untreated, Lyme disease can be disabling.

"The problem is we just ignore (early symptoms), thinking it's something else and then years later, we have problems," said Scott Lenhart, Iredell Health Department supervisor of health education. "It's a nasty disease, it really is, and it takes a long time to get rid of."

The health department reports the disease to the state and conducts public education campaigns, but is not a diagnostic or treatment center for the disease.

There are no infectious disease physicians based in the county, said Vince Cherry, executive director of Davis Regional Medical Center in Statesville. His hospital and Lake Norman Regional Medical Center have recruited an infectious disease specialist to work with both hospitals starting in June.

"It really is phenomenal, the growth in our two communities, that we believe an infectious disease specialist can be supported full time," he said.

Already, infectious disease specialists from Winston-Salem visit patients at Iredell Memorial Hospital daily and outpatients there once a week.

Many Iredell residents with later-stage Lyme disease travel to Huntersville's Jemsek Clinic, an infectious disease practice, said Scott Clontz, who asked county commissioners last week to focus on the rising number of infections locally. Clontz said he knows six people in his east Iredell community with the disease.

County commissioner Steve Johnson said several people at his church have Lyme disease. At his urging, the board decided that commissioner Ken Robertson, as a member of the Board of Health, would bring the issue to that board's attention and see if state help is available.

The health department plans to flood businesses with tick disease-prevention fliers. Community health outreach staffer Ric Bruton can speak to civic groups.

"They're preventable," Lenhart said. "Prevention is the key to any of these."

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