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Lyme disease may be three times more common than estimated, research suggests

UK study finds more people are treated for suspected cases than clinically confirmed
A tick. Picture: iStock

UK study of GP records shows more people are treated for suspected cases of the tick-borne condition than clinically confirmed

Lyme disease cases have increased rapidly in the UK and may be three times more common than current annual estimates, an analysis of GP records suggests.

The disease, spread by ticks, was found in every UK region, with Scotland having the highest number of cases, followed by the south west and south of England.

Researchers looked at a primary care database holding anonymised records of 8.4 million people registered with GP practices between 2001 and 2012 about 8% of the general population.

Some 4,083 cases of Lyme disease were detected in 4,025 patients, 56 of whom

UK study of GP records shows more people are treated for suspected cases of the tick-borne condition than clinically confirmed


Lyme disease is spread by ticks. Picture: iStock 

Lyme disease cases have increased rapidly in the UK and may be three times more common than current annual estimates, an analysis of GP records suggests.

The disease, spread by ticks, was found in every UK region, with Scotland having the highest number of cases, followed by the south west and south of England.

Researchers looked at a primary care database holding anonymised records of 8.4 million people registered with GP practices between 2001 and 2012 – about 8% of the general population.

Some 4,083 cases of Lyme disease were detected in 4,025 patients, 56 of whom appeared to have been infected more than once.

Annual total increased almost tenfold

Of these 4,025 patients, 1,702 (41.7%) had ‘clinically diagnosed’ Lyme disease, 1,913 (46.9%) had ‘treated suspected’ Lyme disease, and 468 (11.5%) had ‘treated possible’ Lyme disease.

The researchers found the annual total number of cases recorded increased almost tenfold over the period, from 60 to 595, suggesting a UK estimate of 7,738 cases in 2012.

The current official estimate for the UK is around 2,000-3,000 new cases of Lyme disease annually, based on laboratory data in England and Wales and centralised reporting in Scotland.


The erythma migrans rash common in Lyme disease Picture: iStock

If the numbers continued to increase post-2012 at a similar rate, the reearchers believe the UK could see in excess of 8,000 cases this year.

Greater willingness to treat early

Lyme disease symptoms can include a circular red rash, often described as looking like a bullseye on a dartboard.

Some people get flu-like symptoms instead of the rash. If Lyme disease is not treated promptly with antibiotics it can cause pain and swelling in joints, nerve and heart problems and trouble concentrating for years after.

In the study, published in the BMJ Open, the authors wrote: ‘From 2009 to 2012, the number of treated suspected cases continued to increase, unlike the number of clinically diagnosed Lyme disease cases, suggesting greater caution among the GPs and willingness to treat the illness early before confirming the diagnosis.’

Suspected and possible cases included

University of East London professor of medical microbiology Sally Cutler said the methodology and inclusion of patients who were only ‘suspected’ and ‘possible’ Lyme disease cases means the numbers in the study ‘are likely to be an overestimation’.

However, Professor Cutler added that the study was reassuring, in that suspected cases of Lyme disease are receiving the benefit of the doubt from GPs and being treated.


Find out more

UK tick-borne Lyme disease cases may be 3 times higher than previous estimates – BMJ Open


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