HEALTH bosses have warned cases of Lyme disease have ‘increased rapidly’ in the UK and may be three times more common than the current annual estimate based on GP records.
Hampshire and parts of the South Downs have been earmarked as having some of the highest number of cases of any UK region behind only Scotland.
The bacterial infection is spread to humans via bites from infected ticks, and symptoms can include a circular red rash often described as a bullseye on a dartboard.
Some people get flu-like symptoms instead of the rash, and if it is not treated promptly with antibiotics it can cause pain and swelling in joints, nerve and heart problems and trouble concentrating for years after.
Researchers from the UK and Germany looked at a primary care database holding anonymised records of 8.4 million people registered with GP practices between 2001 and 2012 - about eight per cent of the general population.
They found the annual total number of cases recorded increased almost ten-fold over the period, from 60 to 595, suggesting a UK estimate of 7,738 cases in 2012, far more than the current UK estimate of between 2,000 and 3,000.
Dr Victoria Cairns, a retired medical statistician from Oxford, said the disease has often been called ‘the great imitator’ because it mimics other symptoms.
She said: ‘This is really just showing there are many more cases than previously, officially estimated.
‘I think GPs certainly know about it, the issue is really for the public to know so that they go to the GP to get diagnosed.
‘Because that's really the big problem with Lyme disease - some people don't get diagnosed quick enough and then they go on to get long-term problems.’
A tick bite can only cause Lyme disease in humans if the tick has already bitten an infected animal.
People are being urged to cover up bare skin while walking outdoors, use insect repellent, staying on paths whenever possible, and wearing light-coloured clothing so ticks are easier to spot and brush off.