Threat of Lyme disease forcing hikers to tuck 
in their trousers

CASES of Lyme disease may be three times higher in Britain than previously thought, prompting health experts to warn walkers to tuck their trousers into their socks when hiking in grassy and wooded areas.

Previous estimates have suggested there are around 2,000 to 3,000 incidents of Lyme disease each year, which occurs when a bacterial infection is passed on through a tick bite.

But a re-evaluation of 8.4 million health records from 658 general practices between 2001 and 2012 shows the real prevalence may be more than 8,000 cases annually.

The disparity is caused because the condition is notoriously difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms can be vague and often confused with viral infections, such as flu.

Those affected may develop a ­circular red skin rash, fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain.

A true diagnosis can only be made by sending blood samples to a laboratory, but the new study also included ­possible and suspected cases.

Lead author Dr Victoria Cairns, a retired expert in Lyme disease, said people need to be more aware of the condition: “The key is to go to the doctor if there are any symptoms, because if it’s treated in good time with antibiotics then it can be dealt with effectively, but if it’s left, that’s when real problems emerge. But it’s known as the ‘great imitator’ because it mirrors so many other diseases, so it can be difficult to diagnose and not everyone gets a rash.

“So if you’ve been walking in long grass or woodland and you start to feel unwell it’s best to visit the doctor.”

The report authors also warn that people may be bringing infected ticks back into their home on dogs if they have been walking in infested areas.

They advise checking for ticks after hiking in high risk areas, as well as avoiding dense vegetation and moist, humid environments, using insect repellent on skin and clothing and tucking trousers into socks.

The study found that Scotland had the highest number of Lyme disease cases, with more than one in four cases (1,104 – 27 per cent), possibly because of its wetter climate and popularity as a hiking destination. It was closely followed by South Central (735 cases – 18 per cent) and South West England (636 cases – 15.6 per cent).

The annual total number of cases recorded increased from 60 in 2001 to 595 in 2012, giving rise to a UK estimate of 7,758 in 2012.

The figure for 2012 is around three times higher than previous estimates have suggested, and if these trends continue, the number of new UK cases could top 8,000 in 2019, say the researchers.

The research was published in the journal BMJ Open.

Grahame White