A HAMPSHIRE hospital is to host the first national centre for Lyme disease, a vicious infection that can attack the nervous system.

Dr Matthew Dryden, consultant microbiologist at Winchester’s Royal Hampshire County Hospital (RHCH), will head the National Lyme Disease Clinic from September.

While the Health Protection Agency report fewer than 2,000 cases of Lyme disease per year in the UK, the number is on the rise and Hampshire is a hot spot.

Dr Dryden is a leading authority on the disease which is spread by tick bites. He has seen 508 confirmed cases over his 20-year career at the RHCH.

He said: “We do get to see quite a lot of patients here but we don’t have a proper clinic.It will be the first national Lyme disease referral service.”

Dr Dryden believes the increase may be down to more people living in wooded areas, such as the New Forest.

The first symptom is a red circular skin rash which may subside after a week or two. A high temperature, muscle and joint pain may then follow.

Most infections are not serious but in extreme cases it can cause paralysis, encephalitis and meningitis.

It is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi,found in the digestive system of deer, pheasants and mice. When a tick bites an animal carrying this bacteria, they can become infected with it.

The tick can transfer the bacteria by biting humans.

Leslie Fretton, 68, has just been diagnosed with Lyme disease. The retired carpenter, who lives near Andover, believes he was bitten in his garden.

He said: “Just over two months ago my arm swelled up. After about five days it started to go down.I have felt rough ever since then.”

His symptoms included pins and needles in his hands and feet, trouble swallowing and walking.

“I could not move out of my bed, it absolutely drains you.”