Last week, The News & Observer published a story with an alarming headline: "Lyme disease is spreading in NC," it read, "but where—and how fast—depends on who you ask."
The tick-borne illness, the article went on to explain, is on the rise in North Carolina, but its scale is up for debate. This is not insignificant. The illness can lead to cognitive impairments if left untreated—and this time of year, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, is prime for Lyme disease cases.
Critics have long complained that the DHHS has downplayed and undercounted the spread of Lyme disease, even once taking the position that it couldn't be contracted in North Carolina even when there were confirmed cases in the state. That's no longer the case. In 2011, the DHHS acknowledged that it was possible to acquire Lyme disease in the state, a move that helped shift the paradigm away from denial.
But even with a new approach, it's still not easy to figure out how widespread it is. According to DHHS data, there were 82 total cases of Lyme disease in 2010; in 2016, there were 277. Those numbers, however, include both confirmed and probable cases, which are two different things. (Probable cases are those that have been diagnosed by a physician and have laboratory evidence of infection, while individuals with confirmed cases also present physical, neurological, or cardiac manifestations of the disease.) As a closer look at the DHHS data shows, the number of probable cases has increased dramatically in recent years, from 95 in 2012 to 242, while the number of confirmed cases has stayed about the same.