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Number of Lyme disease cases on the rise in Western Pennsylvania

When Vic Quinio was diagnosed with Lyme disease late last year, he was just happy for an answer as to why he had debilitating vertigo and other painful complications that hospitalized him twice.

When Vic Quinio was diagnosed with Lyme disease late last year, he was just happy for an answer as to why he had debilitating vertigo and other painful complications that hospitalized him twice.

Doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong.

Quinio is among a growing number of victims of Lyme disease, which is transmitted by a deer tick.

If left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to serious complications to the nervous system and late-stage arthritis..

And with the spring bounty of blooms and warm weather, residents and their pets have to beware of ticks.

Pennsylvania leads the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease, with more than 4,700 in 2011, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the number of confirmed cases in the southwestern part of the state spiked by 75 percent — from 315 cases in 2010 to 552 cases in 2011, according to Kait Gillis, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Health.

It's hard to speculate as to why the increase occurred in southwestern part of the state, she said.

"The number of confirmed cases fluctuate from year to year," Gillis said.

Several factors can lead to a jump in the number of reported cases, she said, including increased awareness, increased testing and outdoor temperatures.

Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics and other medications to control joint pain and other symptoms such as fever, chills, body aches, fatigue and a bull's-eye rash.

Numbers from the state show a gradual increase since 2000 in many Western Pennsylvania counties.

The CDC in 2008 broadened the definition of Lyme disease, but numbers were on the rise even before then.

Disease hits home

For Quinio, his problems started one day last August when he had time off from his barbershop in the Heights Plaza in Harrison.

He had settled on the couch with his laptop computer when he was hit with intense vertigo.

Quinio said he had double vision and couldn't keep his balance.

It was all he could do to crawl to the bathroom to deal with his nausea.

A spike in blood pressure sent him to the hospital, where answers didn't come easily.

Finally, after a spinal tap, as doctors checked for the possibility of multiple sclerosis, a neurologist told Quinio he had contracted Lyme disease.

Although Quinio had other health complications, the diagnosis came out of nowhere for him.

"I was in awe," he said.

"I didn't know when I got bit," said Quinio, who lives in Harrison with a backyard that abuts the woods.

Admittedly, he's hardly the outdoors man. But he routinely spends time outdoors, such as to mow the lawn.

Quinio thinks he might have had the disease for a while. But there's no way for him to know that.

"It's an inexact science," he said.

Given the time it took to diagnose the disease, Quinio said, "If you have some unexplained illness, get the test for Lyme disease."

Canine cases on rise

The disease is also taking a bite out of man's best friend.

In the Alle-Kiski Valley, Lyme disease seems to be hitting dogs hard in Butler County, although canine cases have been reported throughout the region.

People and their pets contract Lyme disease from deer ticks, which also are carried by a number of other animals, such as mice.

Deer ticks, about the size of a sesame seed, typically are found in high brush and woodsy areas.

About 40 percent of the dogs screened at All Pet Animal Hospital in Buffalo Township for heart-worm disease, which includes a screen for Lyme disease, are testing positive for exposure to Lyme disease, said veterinarian Edward Bennett. He practices at All Pet's satellite office in Buffalo Township and its main location in Richland Township, which also reports an increase in cases.

"Compared to a few years ago, I would definitely say that there is an increase in the number of dogs exposed to Lyme disease," said Kellie Person, veterinarian at All Pet Animal Hospital in Richland Township.

Bennett said an estimated 80 percent of those animals testing positive for Lyme disease are not showing symptoms, which include depression and joint problems.

And vets are not in agreement as how to treat the animals, he said.

"The issue is that most of these dogs are fighting off the infections," Bennett said. "It doesn't bother them at all."

So doctors have to decide whether to give the animal antibiotics or not treat them.

But Bennett is concerned about people's exposure to the disease.

"The fact we are seeing so much Lyme disease in our dogs, that means that there are a great number of ticks in our area carrying Lyme disease," he said.