Bug-borne diseases are back — and they’re booming

It’s sad that so many doctors continue to dismiss bug-borne diseases as relatively minor threats. Because, the fact is, there are a lot of them. And they’re only becoming more common — and deadly.

Zika. West Nile. Lyme. Chikungunya.

In fact, a new CDC report shows that cases of tick-, mosquito-, and flea-related illnesses have tripled in the U.S. over the last 13 years. And a whopping nine new insect-borne diseases have made a debut in that same time frame.

This study looked at data from 2004 to 2016 — and included nearly 650,000 reported cases of insect-related illnesses in all. (And bear in mind that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many cases there actually were during this time frame. Because a substantial portion of these illnesses go completely unreported.)

Reported vector-borne diseases (infections transmitted through the bite of a blood-feeding insect) jumped from 27,388 to 96,075 over this 12-year period.

Vector-borne diseases from ticks more than doubled. This type of disease also accounted for more than three quarters of all the case reports. (Of these, Lyme disease was the most common — but other illnesses like spotted fever rickettsioses, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis also rose significantly.)

Meanwhile, reports of mosquito-borne disease jumped from 4,858 in 2004, to a staggering 47,461 cases in 2016. That’s a positively meteoric rise — with West Nile virus, dengue fever, and Zika virus being the main offenders.

Nothing about this report is especially reassuring. To put it in perspective, the most famous plague in recorded history (The Bubonic Plague) was caused by fleas. And while medicine has advanced by leaps and bounds since the black death of the Middle Ages, this sharp spike in vector-borne illness is definitely cause for concern.)

So where were most of these cases reported? The majority of tick-borne diseases were accounted for throughout the eastern United States, as well as some areas on the Pacific coast — but those areas are quickly expanding. Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika (all mosquito-borne) were mostly confined to Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. But West Nile virus — the most common of the mosquito-borne bunch — was documented everywhere.

Translation: The rise has been quick and steady. And even diseases we’ve typically considered to exist in other countries are making their way to our neck of the woods at an alarming rate.

There are a few reasons for this disturbing trend. For one thing, travel makes it easy for infected mosquitos and ticks to move into new territory and introduce disease. (Zika is probably the best recent example of this.)

And we can’t afford to ignore climate change’s role in all this. Mosquito-borne diseases tend to increase during heat waves, which are more frequent than ever these days. Ticks spread out as temps warm up, too. And tick season isn’t just lasting longer — more of the bugs are starting to migrate further north than usual.

The glimmer of good news here is that at least the CDC is actually acknowledging the threat of Lyme disease. (For years, conventional medicine has essentially been denying the existence of chronic Lyme.) With the powers-that-be on board, we might actually start seeing patients get well and stay that way.

In any event, I must point out how critical it is to get tested for these bug-borne illnesses…even if you have no symptoms. Because these diseases can live in your body for years before they manifest. And by then, it’s too late.

That’s why I test each of my patients for these illnesses in mid-spring (depending on the weather) and again in the fall (depending on the timing of the first frost).

As we head into the summer, I urge you to ask your doctor to do the same…especially if you’ve done some traveling. Because this is definitely one case where what you don’t know can hurt you.