Researchers find high risk for Lyme disease in northern Illinois

February 07, 2012 at 07:12 PM

ROCKFORD — Researchers who spent three years collecting ticks say it’s easy to contract Lyme disease in northern Illinois, including Winnebago County.

The map accompanying the study, published in the February issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, shows where people have the greatest risk of contracting the treatable disease caused by the bite of a deer tick, also known as the black-legged tick.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Although researchers told The Associated Press that the new map and information could improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment, Winnebago County Environmental Health Director Larry Swacina said local experts have long known there is a risk of Lyme disease in the area.

“We do get cases almost every year of Lyme disease in Winnebago County,” Swacina said. “Sometimes, they contract it from outside the area and then come home, but in some cases we believe people get it in this area. We have done some work collecting deer ticks in the last few years and had them analyzed. It shows they are in fact infected with the Lyme disease that can be transmitted to humans.”

Researchers in the three-year study said one deer tick in five collected was infected. In Winnebago County, there were 23 confirmed cases of people infected with the disease in 2011, although it is impossible to determine how many of those were actually contracted here.

It’s treatable with the proper antibiotics, but can easily be mistaken for the flu or a virus because it can have similar symptoms of fatigue, chills and fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, and joint or muscle pain, according to information from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

And the number of state residents who contract Lyme disease appears to be on the rise. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of reported cases in Illinois went up nearly every year from 2000 — when there were 35 cases — to 2011 when there were 135.

Associated Press reports say the new map shows a clear risk of Lyme disease across much of the Northeast, from Maine to northern Virginia. Researchers also identified a distinct high-risk region in the upper Midwest, including most of Wisconsin, northern Minnesota and part of northern Illinois. Areas highlighted as “emerging risk” regions include the Illinois-Indiana border, the New York-Vermont border, southwest Michigan and eastern North Dakota.

Swacina said Lyme disease-carrying ticks are slightly smaller than the common dog tick. The problem ticks typically are found in heavily wooded areas, and hikers should wear insect repellent and tuck their pants into their hiking boots, especially during the fall and spring when the bugs are most active. Swacina advised to check for ticks and remove them with tweezers as soon as possible.

“They particularly like living in that habitat,” Swacina said. “Their primary host is the deer, so wherever you might find deer, the more likely they will be in that location.”

Staff writer Jeff Kolkey can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or at 815-987-1374.