Student guest post by Kyle Malter
In many areas of the country there is a vile blood sucker that lurks in our forests, our parks and even our backyards. What concerns us is not what this creature takes but rather what it leaves in our body after it bites us: corkscrew shaped bacteria called spirochetes and with the name Borrelia burgdorferi. When the bacteria invade our bodies and cause problems along the way we call it Lyme disease.
It is Lyme, not “Lymes” disease, and here’s how it got that name. In the early 1970’s a large number of cases emerged involving children with a “bulls-eye” rash followed by arthritis and they were concentrated in a small area in and near Lyme, Connecticut. Initially, the cause of the disease was unknown. A clue to the mystery was that most of the kids lived near a wooded area. After more investigation, ticks that feed on deer were identified as likely suspects. The medical community learned that the “deer tick” transmitted the spirochete bacteria which was likely infecting the children and causing symptoms. A researcher named Willy Burgdorfer helped identify the organism and in honor of his contribution the bacterium was named Borrelia burgdorferi.  Wouldn’t it be fun to have a nasty bacteria named after you?
Signs of Lyme disease can vary from a mild rash to serious pain and disability. If infected, a “bull’s-eye” rash occurs in most people because of the inflammation left in the trail of the migrating bacteria. They move from the bite site away leaving the classic target appearance. When this bug spirals though your joints, organs and tissues it can cause damage and a wide range of symptoms including fever, headache, lethargy, stiffness and general soreness. In some cases, more serious and long-term problems with swollen joints, arthritis, Bell’s palsy, and even heart disease can result. The symptoms can come and go and may last a lifetime.  This is one serious problem if you have the disease-spreading tick in your environment. Most people refer to the species as the “deer tick” or the “black-legged tick” although the proper name is Ixodes. Don’t forget about your dogs either. They are also commonly infected in endemic states, can get permanent arthritis, and can rarely even die from the disease. 
Lyme disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states but is heavily concentrated in the northeast and upper Mid-West.  Approximately 96% of cases come from only 13 states.  CDC data by state, maps and disease forecast models show a clearly increasing trend. Why such a steep increase in the number of cases? There are probably many reasons. First, surveillance is probably higher now than it was 15 years ago. We simply weren’t looking for it as much then. Another contributor is the increased population of the white-footed mouse in some regions.  This rodent is a reservoir for the bacteria meaning they harbor the bug until the tick larva come for a meal. They are like a bank filled with Borrelia ready for every tick to make a withdrawal. Once the tick has the bug in its gut, it is a loaded gun.
The recent increase in the white-footed mouse population may be the result of a cascade of events. “Change one thing. Change everything.” Ohio reported two recent “banner years” for acorn production with a 36% increase in white oak acorns between 2011 and 2012. A more abundant supply of “mouse food” in the way of acorns could result in more mice because they replicate much more efficiently. More white-footed mice means more banks filled with Borrelia. Ticks have a much better chance of making a withdrawal with every meal. More ticks with Borrelia means more animals and humans infected. So that’s how more acorns could mean more Lyme disease.
If you are unsure if Lyme bacteria are in your area just ask your dog. Some studies suggest that dogs that live in your area may be able to predict your risk level.    For those in the northeast and upper Mid-West you don’t have to ask. It is ubiquitous in these parts of the country. Veterinarians in many non-endemic states are now screening dogs yearly to see if they have ever been infected with Borrelia. If some dogs in your region are positive you should be more vigilant. The CDC will keep track as well so check their Lyme page annually.
Preventing Lyme disease can be a very big challenge. For dogs, very effective vaccines are available to protect them.   So if this is such a potentially devastating disease in people why don’t we have a vaccine for humans? Well, we did. In the late 1990’s a vaccine was approved by the FDA to aid in the prevention of Lyme disease in humans. While the safety and efficacy during the approval studies were good, there were skeptics and strong opponents in the public and medical community. Some people claimed that the vaccine caused Lyme disease rather than prevent it. Ultimately, the vaccine manufacturer withdrew it from the market citing poor demand.  Allen Steere, the man who discovered Lyme disease, also led one of the SmithKline Beecham (SKB) Lyme vaccine trials. He said, “the withdrawal of the SKB vaccine . . . represents the most painful event in our Lyme disease history . . . the vaccine was really withdrawn because of fear and lawsuits, not because of scientific findings”  Some advocates are attempting to rekindle efforts to make a vaccine for Lyme disease available again while others are opposed to the idea.
Tick prevention is our best strategy to prevent Lyme disease. Without a tick bite you cannot get Lyme disease. In fact, even if an Ixodes tick bites you, it takes at least 24-48 hours of attachment to transmit the bacteria into your body. The National Institutes of Health suggest that you follow their fashion advice and tuck in your shirt into your light colored pants, tuck your pants into your socks and then put tape around the bottom.  I’ve never seen this method utilized in a public place but I’m sure you will end up on the “People of Wal-Mart” site if you try it. The CDC recommends pyrethrins on your clothing and DEET on your skin and clothing to repel ticks.  The EPA also has a nice online tool. Check yourself everyday for ticks during peak months. Deer ticks are tiny so take some time and inspect your nooks and crannies. The nymph stage, the second smallest tick in this picture, is the one that usually infects people. Again, don’t forget about your dog. While he can’t give you Lyme disease, he is also susceptible to it. Ask your veterinarian which flea and tick preventative is right for your pets.
Lyme disease is no longer just a Lyme, Connecticut problem. If it is not yet in your backyard, it could be soon. Lyme disease can have lifelong, debilitating consequences. Arm yourself with information and your body with tick protection. We are not defenseless. Protect yourself. Protect your dog. Please.
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