Tiny Tick, Big Problem

The incidence of Lyme disease is increasing, parents are panicked about potentially dangerous consequences -- and the medical community is intensifying its efforts to understand this perplexing illness.

Why Is Lyme Disease on the Rise?

When 7-year-old Tristan Carey found a tiny bug crawling on his stomach, he flicked it away and never thought to mention it. Nor did he tell his parents when he developed a circular rash on his groin.

Luckily, the rash happened to be there on the day of his annual checkup -- and his pediatrician recognized this classic sign of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that's transmitted by ticks. Chances are, the bug Tristan saw crawling away had bitten him a few days before and had just finished a nice, long meal. "Tristan wasn't acting sick, and since that's not a spot I usually check, I would never have suspected anything," says his mother, Heather.

The Careys live in Fairfield, Connecticut, less than 60 miles from the town of Lyme, where the disease was first identified in the 1970s. Because Tristan got diagnosed early and took antibiotics, he didn't develop more serious symptoms like arthritis, but his mom knows her family might not be so lucky next time. "Now I always check my three kids for ticks and rashes from top to bottom."

Since 1992, the number of cases of Lyme disease reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more than doubled. There were more than 23,300 reported cases in 2005, but studies estimate that the actual number may be anywhere from three to 12 times higher because doctors don't always report patients to their state health departments, says Barbara Johnson, PhD, chief of the CDC's microbiology laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado. And since the disease can cause a wide variety of different symptoms, it is often misdiagnosed.

Summertime is the peak season for Lyme disease, and kids are at particularly high risk because they tend to play in wooded and grassy areas, where ticks live. The disease has been reported in all 50 states, but 95 percent of the reports come from the Northeast, upper Midwest, and California. "Cases are reported by state of residence, not by state of acquisition," says Dr. Johnson. In other words, if a child from Utah gets Lyme disease on vacation in Massachusetts, it will cause a statistical blip in Utah, even though the ticks there don't carry the bacterium.

Parents Are Talking

Add a Comment