The spread of Lyme disease has increased dramatically over the past 15 years with the illness more than tripling in rural areas, according to the nonprofit FAIR Health’s recent analysis of health insurance claims.
Lyme disease, caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, is transmitted to humans through the bites of infected blacklegged ticks, often called “deer ticks.”
From 2007 to 2021, private insurance claims with a Lyme disease diagnosis in rural America jumped by 357 percent and in urban areas by 65 percent (pdf).
A significant share of that increase occurred in the years between 2016 and 2021, with a 60 percent increase in rural areas and 19 percent increase in urban areas.
FAIR Health also identified seasonal geographic trends in claims between 2016 and 2021, with the months of June and July seeing more incidents in rural regions and the months of November to April seeing more cases in urban areas.
In 2017, the states with the highest proportion of Lyme disease diagnoses on insurance claims were New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In 2021, Maine replaced North Carolina, claiming a spot in the top five.
FAIR Health reported that symptoms like fatigue and malaise were more common among patients with Lyme disease than among other patients.
“Lyme disease remains a growing public health concern. FAIR Health will continue to use its repository of claims data to provide actionable and relevant insights to healthcare stakeholders seeking to better understand the ongoing rise of Lyme disease cases,” FAIR Health President Robin Gelburd said in an Aug. 2 news release.
The usual symptoms of Lyme disease include headache, fatigue, fever, and a skin rash called erythema migrans, often described as a “bull’s-eye” rash. If the infection is not treated, it can spread to the nervous system, heart, and joints. Most cases can typically be treated successfully after taking antibiotics for a few weeks.
Reducing tick habitats, applying pesticides to infested areas, using insect repellent, and immediately removing any ticks found on the body are some of the ways to prevent a Lyme disease infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated annually for Lyme disease.
The CDC studied the economic burden of Lyme disease between 2014 and 2016 and found that Americans spent between $345 million and $968 million each year for expenses related to the illness.
The average patient spent about $1,200 per infection.
Researchers estimate that over 14 percent of the world’s population has been infected with Lyme disease at some point, according to an analysis of antibody data published in BMJ Global Health in June.