Lyme Disease: A Growing Epidemic

by Tom Ellis


ALBANY, NY: Holly Ahern, an Associate Professor of Microbiology at SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury, was the guest speaker at the August 29 SPB dinner. She discussed Lyme Disease: A Growing Epidemic.

Ms. Ahern began saying the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the NYS Health Department (DOH) have a definition of Lyme disease – you see a tick and get a rash – that differs from the “other’ more common form of the disease. With the “other” Lyme Disease, there is no visible tick or rash, the victim begins getting aches and pains, physicians and specialists run numerous tests costing up to $10,000, no definitive diagnosis is made, they conclude the illness must be psychological, medications are prescribed, and the symptoms worsen.

She said ticks can grab onto hosts if they brush by them but do not jump. They are called insects but are more closely related to spiders with eight legs. Larvae ticks hatch from eggs and quickly latch onto small mammals in their vicinity, typically mice or chipmunks. The larval ticks pick up bacteria and viruses from their first blood meal. After eating, larvae drop off the rodents, then grow into the next stage, called nymphs. Nymphs typically feed in the summer months, on whatever warm blooded animal they can find. Once they feed, the molt into adult ticks. Adult ticks have therefore fed on at least two prior hosts. The adult ticks feed on new hosts, which may include horses, deer, humans, as well as companion animals.

Ticks can freeze solid in winter, thaw and thrive like they were never frozen. Ticks are very hardy, difficult to kill. Both the nymph and adult ticks can transmit bacteria (such as Borrelia, Bartonella, Ehrlichia, and Mycoplasma), viruses (including the Powassen virus and tick-borne encephalitis virus), and other parasites (Babesia) to their hosts. Tick-borne viruses may cause encephalitis like the better known West Nile Virus, but little money is being spent researching tick-borne encephalitis.

When a tick bites, it injects bacteria into the host animal. Bacteria can then enter the human body. A human may not experience any symptoms for years after a bite. An immense variety of symptoms can result including facial palsy and heart palpitations. In later stages of many of the tick-borne infections, a short course (3-4 weeks) of antibiotics may not effectively eliminate all of the bacteria, permitting chronic symptoms to develop. Chronic Lyme Disease (CLD) can occur in some people although the term CLD remains controversial. Obtaining Lyme Disease diagnosis is vital for receiving health insurance coverage for the illness.

Lyme disease may be difficult to diagnose because the two diagnostic markers for the disease, the “bulls-eye” rash and the blood test for antibodies against Borrelia are poor indicators for the disease. Ms. Ahern cited several studies that appeared in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals; one reported that bites by an adult tick do not cause a rash, but can still cause Lyme disease. Contrary to popular thinking, a tic does not need latch on to a person for 24 hours to transmit bacteria; four hours may be sufficient.

The characteristic rash is only seen in a third of people who later are diagnosed with Lyme disease. The first tier of the “two-tier” blood tests is only 50% accurate. Ms. Ahern said her thesis is the CDC and DOH definition of Lyme disease is so flawed that there is significant under-diagnosis by physicians and under-reporting to CDC and DOH.

Lyme Disease is diagnosed at far higher rates than HIV, West Nile Virus, and Hepatitis C, but these three illnesses get far more attention. Several studies concluded Lyme Disease rates are many times higher than reported. Among these are a Mercer University School of Medicine in Georgia 2002 report of a 40 times higher rate, A 2011 University of Massachusetts study of 40 times higher, and a 2011 Vermont Department of Health report that 16 percent of Vermont dogs have Lyme antibodies. She concluded saying, “Physicians must recognize Lyme disease is not just endemic to certain parts of the country, but an epidemic and truly an emerging health crisis.”

During the questions and comments, she said Deet, despite its other problems, deters ticks; spray your clothes with Deet and tics will not attach to the clothes. She declined to discuss the relationship between Lyme disease and Climate Change saying she is not a geologist or climatologist, but warmer weather this winter certainly led to an increase in the number of ticks this year.

One woman said she was recently diagnosed with Lyme Disease, took the antibiotics but wonders if she still has the disease or will it recur. Ms. Ahern said it is impossible to predict her long-term health impacts.

Lynne Jackson said there were few or no ticks in the Pine Bush until 1990. Ms. Ahern said Lyme disease has been here for many decades but was probably not diagnosed in the past. She said the Alps Ice Man who died 5000 years ago and was found about twenty years ago, had Lyme disease.

There is no vaccine today for Lyme disease. One was taken off the market because the vaccine sometimes caused dormant Lyme disease to reactivate. She said ticks can be tested to ascertain the specific type(s) of bacteria they contain. She said Babesia can be transmitted via blood transfusions; not all but some types of bacteria can be transferred by blood transfusions.

In response to my question as to why the USCDC and NYSDOH are unwilling to acknowledge that Lyme disease is far more complex than they say, Ms. Ahern said these agencies face legal and financial pressures to maintain their stance. To admit an error might invite lawsuits. Some of the people involved in decision-making processes concerning what constitutes a case of Lyme disease and how to diagnose and treat it make considerable profits manufacturing treatments and diagnostic tests.

John Wolcott asked if citizens groups could create a certification process for competent Lyme disease specialists and physicians similar to the organic certification processes that exist in many states and regions. Ms. Ahern thought this an interesting idea and concluded urging people to educate their physicians about the disease.

Ms. Ahern also distributed copies of a two-page handout of the Lyme Action Network titled, It Might Be Lyme or Babesia…or Bartonella…or Ehrlichia…or…

Editor’s note: Save the Pine Bush very much appreciates Ms. Ahern’s speaking at our dinner about this extremely important topic and sharing her research with us. We are in complete agreement with Ms. Ahern about the importance of taking steps to prevent contracting Lyme Disease. However, SPB also notes the existence of “chronic lyme disease” is controversial; the Wikipedia article on lyme disease states “The term “chronic Lyme disease” or “post-Lyme disease syndrome” is not recognized by mainstream medicine, and most medical authorities advise against long-term antibiotic treatment for chronic Lyme disease.” SPB makes no recommendations regarding the diagnosis and treatment of lyme disease or chronic lyme disease and urges anyone with a health issue to consult a physician.



Published in October/November, 2012 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter