“Ticked Off” about Lyme Disease

Old Lyme, CT: Home of Lyme disease
Old Lyme, CT: Home of Lyme disease

Mysteriously in the early 1970s, a significant amount of children and some adults in the town Lyme, Connecticut began exhibiting strangely similar symptoms such as swollen joints, paralysis, skin rashes, headaches, and severe chronic fatigue (“History of Lyme Disease”). Doctors had no diagnosis for these patients, and many went undiagnosed and untreated for many years. Due to a lack of answers, some mothers began taking notes, conducting their own research into the illness, and reaching out to more scientists and doctors.

Researchers tried to uncover the common link that would connect all of these strange cases. First, they began by looking at microbes in the water and air in the region near Lyme, CT. When this direction led researchers and doctors astray, they probed the patients for more clues until they realized that many of the children and adults could recall having a skin rash around an area where they had been bitten by a tick. By the mid-1970s, physicians now had a diagnosis for these patients called “Lyme disease.” However, there was still a lack of treatment, and the cause remained unknown until a few years later.

Interestingly, although Lyme disease is a fairly newly discovered disease, it has actually been around for thousands of years. A recent autopsy and genomic sequencing of a 5,300-year-old mummy named “Ötzi” revealed the presence of the spirochete responsible for Lyme disease (“Iceman Mummy May Hold Earliest Evidence of Lyme Disease”). Also, approximately 130 years ago, a German physicist, Alfred Buchwald, first described the common skin rash symptom, erythema migrans (EM), of what is now known to be Lyme disease (“History of Lyme Disease”).

In 1981, a scientist studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), which is also cause by a tick bite, began to study Lyme disease. Willy Burgdorfer discovered a connection between the deer tick and the disease after wondering whether the European skin rash (EM) had the same causal agent as Lyme disease. Through his research, Burgdorfer realized that a spirochete bacterium carried by deer ticks was behind the disease. In 1982, the spirochete was named Borrelia burgdorferi in honor of Burgdorfer’s discovery (“A History of Lyme Disease, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention”).

After this important revelation, physicians began using antibiotics to treat their patients with symptoms of Lyme disease. This treatment has been very successful for patients with early-stage Lyme disease and is still used today. However, there is much debate regarding long-term treatment of the disease.

Lyme disease has become an ever-increasing problem in the United States and around the world since its discovery in the 1980s. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), included Lyme disease on its list of top ten notifiable diseases. The CDC also estimates that 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year (“CDC Provides Estimate of Americans Diagnosed with Lyme Disease Each Year”), and cases of Lyme disease have been reported in every U.S. state except for Hawaii.

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U.S. cases of Lyme disease reported since 1990.

Today, Lyme disease remains a controversial topic of discussion among many health care providers. One side of the argument believes that Lyme disease is hard to catch and easy to treat (it is not a persistent infection), which encourages short-term antibiotic treatment for an infected patient. The other viewpoint believes Lyme disease can be a chronic infection, which calls for prolonged antibiotic treatment (“About Lyme Controversy”). Unfortunately, this rift in the scientific community may prevent patients from being properly diagnosed and treated for the disease.

Many people are “ticked” off due to this controversy surrounding the disease and its resulting effects upon patient treatment. In order to combat the stigma, many people pledge to “Take a Bite out of Lyme Disease” by spreading awareness via social media and educating others about the disease.

Raising awareness about the stigmatized disease.
Raising awareness about the stigmatized disease.

You can find out more about the disease and support the campaign here.

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