GREEN BAY (AP) — State health officials have relaxed the reporting requirements for Lyme disease, a move that will ease the burden on backlogged health departments but has some worried about de-emphasizing a potentially serious health risk.
Starting this summer, health officials are no longer required to investigate or report cases unless the patient has the characteristic bull's-eye rash, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported (http://gbpg.net/MJVxN5 ) Tuesday.
A rash shows up in about 70 percent of cases, meaning the change could eliminate up to 30 percent of cases, said Diep Hoang Johnson, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health Services.
"We had to do something," she said. "It takes so much work."
Case numbers had been going up in recent years. More than 20,000 cases were confirmed since 1990, with about half in the past five years alone.
The old system required local health departments to investigate and report all patients who tested positive for the disease, with or without the rash, said Wendy Stuart, a public health nurse for the Marinette County health department.
"We definitely have had an increased workload," she said. "It's kind of draining the resources that we have."
Not every positive test meant a case was confirmed. There were an estimated 8,000 positive tests across the state last year, fewer than half of which turned out to be confirmed or probable cases.
The state still requires doctors and laboratories to report all positive test results to local health departments, but departments won't have to pursue cases if there is no rash.
Mike Nickel, the president of the Wisconsin Lyme Network, understands the reasoning behind the state's action, but he says there are concerns. Some worry that a reduction in the number of reported cases will result in people paying less attention to the disease. He also said the new procedures could send a signal that doctors no longer need to report suspected cases.
"We're concerned by it," he said. "But it's a wait-and-see approach."
Lyme disease is transmitted to humans through tick bites. It's a non-contagious infection that can cause fever, fatigue and headache. If left untreated, it can lead to serious complications, such as meningitis and arthritis.
Johnson said the state will rely on past trends and current estimates to continue tracking the disease, but acknowledged that officials will probably end up with a less complete picture. Local health officials, meanwhile, say the relaxed rules will free them up to focus on other emerging health problems, such as whooping cough.
Information from: Green Bay Press-Gazette, http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com