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Some counties bear higher risk for Lyme disease

Journal photo by Jenni Vincent Hedgesville resident Larry Winegarden can’t wait to get back on the course, but golf will have to wait until he’s feeling stronger after having been diagnosed with Lyme disease last month.
Journal photo by Jenni Vincent
Hedgesville resident Larry Winegarden can’t wait to get back on the course, but golf will have to wait until he’s feeling stronger after having been diagnosed with Lyme disease last month.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — State medical officials have long known that certain counties – including Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan – have had the highest reported cases of Lyme disease in West Virginia, while other areas haven’t been impacted at all by it.

While that same phenomenon has also been seen nationally, primarily in the Northeast and upper Midwest, researchers are now increasingly concerned because these geographic areas have grown in the past decade – meaning that more areas in these regions are considered to be high risk.

That’s the news from a report published online Wednesday showing that “260 counties where the risk of catching Lyme disease from tick bites is at least twice the national average, up from 130 a decade earlier,” according to the Centers for Disease Control’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.

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The research also indicated the disease is becoming more common farther south and west.

Lyme disease, an infection caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, is carried by the blacklegged tick (also commonly referred to as deer tick). Its name comes from the first recognized cases that were in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975.

Berkeley County Health Officer Dr. Diana Gaviria said the Eastern Panhandle has long been the one area of the state with a sizable number of cases that test positive for this infection.

“We do get a lot of reports of Lyme disease, and we do see a lot of cases of it,” she said, adding that most of the high numbers can be attributed to the area’s geographic location.

“I think this high rate is not due to our growing population, but instead because Lyme disease started as kind of a coastal issue – and around here that was true on the Eastern Shore. It has since kind of tracked up the Potomac River. For a long time, the three local counties were the only ones in the state seeing any significant cases of it,” Gaviria said.

Symptoms can include a “bulls-eye” skin rash, fever, headache and fatigue, although related problems can also spread to joints, the heart and nervous system if it is not treated.

CDC researchers found high-risk counties in 17 states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.

Most cases are reported in June, July and August, according to CDC statistics.

For 2000 to 2014, Berkeley County led the state with 595 cases, followed by 285 in Jefferson and 147 in Morgan, according to West Virginia Bureau for Public Health data.

Hampshire County followed with 65 cases, while many counties reported a dozen or fewer cases and many had none at all.

“As of 2015, there are seven counties in West Virginia that are considered endemic – meaning that cases are expected to exist – for Lyme disease, including Berkeley, Hampshire, Hancock, Jefferson, Mineral, Morgan and Wood,” said Toby Wagoner, a spokesman with the Bureau for Public Health in Charleston.

None of this comes as a surprise to Hedgesville resident Larry Winegarden, who spent a night in the hospital after finally being diagnosed with Lyme disease – and is still taking antibiotics as he struggles to recover – a process that is taking more time than he’d like since it’s been about a month since the trouble began.

Winegarden said he has no idea when he actually got bit by a tick on his upper left arm, and getting a diagnosis was more difficult since he didn’t have the trademark bull’s eye rash.

His other symptoms included aching sinuses, back of neck pain and constant pain in his right eye – so much that he could barely open it.

“Then I got double vision, and along the way also developed Bell’s Palsy symptoms,” Winegarden said, adding that he didn’t expect to be this sick for so long.

Although he is still weak and not able to do much physically – he’s not been up to playing his beloved golf, and isn’t yet sure he’ll feel like taking a planned vacation – there’s still hope, Winegarden said.

“The doctor said I was diagnosed pretty early on, and that matters, because if you catch it within the first couple of weeks they tell me it is 99 percent curable,” he said.

“Still, I never know how I am going to feel at this point. I just have to wait and hope,” Winegarden said.

Although the symptoms can be general in nature, Gaviria said it is important for people to check with a doctor if they find a tick on them or believe they may have been bitten by one.

“You don’t necessarily have to be out in a deep forest to come in contact with a tick, and one could drop into your hair simply by walking under a tree. And since they are also found in bushy, wooded areas, it is important to check for them after being in places like that,” she said.

– Staff writer Jenni Vincent can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 131.

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