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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Tickborne Diseases Likely to Increase

Engorged deer tick.

An engorged deer tick, or Ixodes scapularis, can transmit Lyme disease.

Photo: NIAID

The incidence of tickborne infections in the United States has risen significantly within the past decade. It is imperative, therefore, that public health officials and scientists build a robust understanding of pathogenesis, design improved diagnostics and develop preventive vaccines, according to a new commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine from leading scientists at NIAID.

Bacteria cause most tickborne diseases in the U.S., with Lyme disease representing the majority (82 percent) of reported cases.

The spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi is the primary cause of Lyme disease in North America; it is carried by hard-bodied ticks that then feed on smaller mammals, such as white-footed mice, and larger animals, such as white-tailed deer.

Although there are likely many factors contributing to increased Lyme disease incidence in the U.S., greater tick densities and their expanding geographical range have played a key role, the authors write. For example, the Ixodes scapularis tick, which is the primary source of Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S., had been detected in nearly 50 percent more counties by 2015 than was previously reported in 1996.

Although most cases of Lyme disease are successfully treated with antibiotics, 10 to 20 percent of patients report lingering symptoms after effective antimicrobial therapy. Scientists need to better understand this lingering morbidity, note the authors.

Tickborne virus infections are also increasing and could cause serious illness and death. For example, Powassan virus (POWV), recognized in 1958, causes a febrile illness that can be followed by progressive and severe neurologic conditions, resulting in death in 10 to 15 percent of cases and long-term symptoms in as many as 70 percent of survivors.

Only 20 U.S. cases of POWV infection were reported before 2006; 99 cases were reported between 2006 and 2016.

The public health burden of tickborne disease is considerably underreported, according to the authors. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease annually in the U.S. but estimates that the true incidence is 10 times that number. According to the authors, this is due in part to the limitations of current tickborne disease surveillance, as well as current diagnostics, which may be imprecise in some cases and are unable to recognize new tickborne pathogens as they emerge.

These limitations have led researchers to explore new, innovative diagnostics with different platforms that may provide clinical benefit in the future.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Associate Editor: Carla Garnett
Carla.Garnett@nih.gov

Staff Writers:

Eric Bock
Eric.Bock@nih.gov

Dana Talesnik
Dana.Talesnik@nih.gov

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