updated 5/6/2004 3:33:48 PM ET 2004-05-06T19:33:48

Lyme disease has climbed to its highest level on record in the United States, in part because of the building of more and more homes in the woods, the government reported Thursday.

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During 2002, a total of 23,763 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — up 40 percent from the previous year.

“It is alarming to us,” said Dr. Erin Staples, a CDC researcher. “People really have to know they can reduce their risk of Lyme disease.”

Insect repellent lowers risk
Lyme disease bacteria are transmitted to humans by ticks that are carried by deer. The CDC attributed the rise in cases to growing populations of deer that support deer ticks, more homes being built in wooded areas and better recognition and reporting of the disease.

Lyme disease was named in 1977 when a cluster was identified in Lyme, Conn. The 2002 cases were mainly in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and north-central states. Only Hawaii, Montana and Oklahoma reported no cases in 2002.

People can lower their risk of getting the disease by using insect repellent and promptly removing ticks from the body, the CDC said.

The disease is often identified by an expanding “bulls-eye” rash that develops days to weeks after a tick bite. Other symptoms include tiredness, fever, muscle aches and joint pain.

If untreated, the disease can cause joint swelling and brain inflammation.

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