At Least 1 in 7 People Worldwide Have Had Lyme Disease

More than 14 percent of the global population currently has tick-borne Lyme disease or has previously been infected, a new study suggests.

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Lyme disease is primarily transmitted by black-legged or deer ticks in the United States.Adobe Stock (2); Canva

Tick-borne Lyme disease is becoming more common, and a study suggests that more than 1 in 7 people worldwide are currently infected or have previously had this illness.

For the study, researchers examined data pooled from 89 previously published studies of Lyme disease prevalence that, combined, included more than 158,000 participants worldwide. These studies looked at data from blood tests to see how often people got infected with Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb), the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Blood tests show antibodies to Bb infection when people currently have Lyme disease or have had it in the past.

Overall, 14.5 percent of the global population currently has Lyme disease or has been previously infected, the analysis of data from 2001 to 2021 found. The worldwide prevalence of Lyme disease was also significantly higher during the second decade of the study period.

The three regions of highest reported seroprevalence were Central Europe (21 percent), Eastern Asia (16 percent), and Western Europe (13.5 percent). At the other end of the scale, the regions with the lowest reported seroprevalence were the Caribbean (2 percent), Southern Asia (3 percent), and Oceania (nearly 5.5 percent).

But the reported pooled Bb seroprevalence in studies using a widely used analytical technique to confirm the presence of specific proteins, known as Western blotting, was lower than that of studies using other confirmatory methods.

In light of this finding, the authors suggest that the routine use of Western blotting could significantly improve the accuracy of Bb antibody detection.

A smaller pooled analysis of the results of 58 studies in which Western blotting had been used, showed that older age (50 or older), male sex, residence in a rural area and being bitten by a tick were all associated with a heightened risk of Bb antibodies.

Lyme disease “is a widely distributed infectious disease, but it has not received much attention worldwide,” the study authors wrote in BMJ Global Health.

Lyme disease prevalence is highest in Central and Western Europe and in Eastern Asia, the study also found. Men ages 50 and older living in rural areas appeared most at risk.

One limitation of the study is the lack of long-term data on whether Bb antibodies might influence the future risk of developing Lyme disease or recurrent infections, the study team notes.

Because of the varied methods of the smaller studies in the analysis, it was also hard to get precise definitions of many populations that might be at high risk for Lyme disease, the researchers also point out.

In the United States, Lyme disease is primarily transmitted by black-legged or deer ticks. These critters typically need to attach for 36 to 48 hours in order to transmit enough bacteria to cause Lyme disease, according to?Mayo Clinic. People who spend a lot of time outdoors in heavily wooded areas and tall weeds or grasses are most at risk.

Sticking to marked trails and avoiding long grasses can help minimize the infection risk, according to Mayo Clinic. Ticks attach to bare skin, so covering up with long sleeves and pants, and pulling socks up over your pants can help limit exposure. Insect repellent with at least a 20 percent concentration of DEET can also help.

When people do get Lyme disease, antibiotics are typically the first treatment, according to the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center. Most patients who catch Lyme disease early make a full recovery after taking antibiotics. Some people do suffer from ongoing symptoms such as severe fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and cognitive problems.