Nature fights back. Just outside of Manhattan, with its billionaires and trendy chic eateries, the forest – cut back centuries ago – has regrown. The green undergrowth is thick with berries and littered with acorns that feed squirrels and mice that are laden with the ticks that harbor the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in humans. A plague of mice occurred in the summer of 2016.
Infectious disease experts predict a major increase in Lyme infection in 2017 and 2018.
Infection from Lyme disease can cause lifelong health problems. There is no vaccine. Unless caught in the early stages, there are few effective treatments. Even with antibiotics, Lyme can persist for years.
The bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi that carries Lyme disease causes flu-like symptoms and can lead to arthritis and neurological problems. Ixodes scapularis ticks harbor Borrelia. They favor white-footed mice, but also live on deer and other animals. Ticks feeding on the mice pick up the disease and pass it on to people.
Young ticks look for places like low growing bushes, weeds, and grass to hitch rides on mammals that pass by, including mice, horses, deer, and humans. Mice are the favored target. And with more acorns, there are many more mice. A single mouse can host hundreds of ticks.
New York is not the only place expecting a Lyme explosion in 2017-18. Due to warmer weather, ticks are breeding in record numbers in North America. Southern New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland, as well as Wisconsin, are prime Lyme areas. But, Lyme is not just an East Coast problem. Pockets in northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and Florida also have Lyme cases.
Lyme disease danger zones also occur in temperate regions around the globe including France and Poland. Other countries harbor ticks that carry Lyme include the Ural Mountains of Russian and northern China.
Why the Increase in Lyme Disease?
Blame it on climate change. Warmer weather favors ticks in areas that never were a problem until now. But the tick problem it’s not just due to global warming. The coming Lyme epidemic has been centuries in the making.
Before 1492, The Eastern States were covered in old growth forest. A complex, but stable ecosystem existed between plants, animals, and humans. As the forest were cut and farmland cultivated, then abandoned to new forests, then to suburban housing development, the ecosystem changed. Instead of favoring top predators like bears and wolves, the new ecology benefited small mammals and insects. Rodent populations exploded.
It may be an oversimplification, but it seems to me that Nature’s solution is to keep humans out of the woods.
Borrelia burgdorferi has also evolved. There several known strains of the Lyme bacteria. Some strains are resistant to Erythromycin and other antibiotics. Tolerance to mono antibiotic therapy is common leading to persistent symptoms termed Post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS). Antibiotic combinations are necessary but don’t always work.
Preventing Lyme Disease
The only sure way not to get sick is not to get bitten. But keeping everyone out of the woods and grass is unlikely to happen.
How To Not Get A Tick Bite:
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when hiking.
- Rubber band the cuffs.
- Use insect repellent.
- Apply essential oil lotion.
- Don’t let your dog or cat roam into the woods or grass because they’ll bring ticks home that will migrate to you and your family.
- Check yourself and children for ticks after walks and before baths.
- Joint and muscle pain
- Bell’s Palsy
- Severe, unrelenting fatigue
- Joint and muscle pain
- Brain fog
There is no vaccine. But drug companies are working hard to find one that is safe and effective. Valneva, a French biotech company, has one in early human trials. However, it won’t be ready for the 2017-18 tick seasons.
Early infection causes flu-like symptoms, but without the coughing associated with respiratory viral infections like a cold or influenza.
Symptoms of Acute Lyme Infection:
Lyme disease seems to sequester in the joints, but chronic active infection can affect any part of the body including the nervous system. Symptoms can mimic multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of Chronic Lyme Disease:
How Do You Know If You Have Lyme Disease?
If you do get bit, save the tick for testing. Not all ticks carry Lyme, but confirmation of a tick infested with Lyme requires treatment even if you don’t get the infamous bull’s eye rash.
To know if you have acute Lyme infection, the first test your doctor will order is EIA for IgM antibodies to Lyme. The two FDA-approved EIA Lyme tests are ELISA and ELFA. You can also order these tests for yourself without a doctor’s prescription from online labs.
If the EIA test is positive, another test is required. The second test is called Lyme Disease, Western Blot and tests for both IgM and IgG antibodies. IgM antibodies signal early infection. IgG antibodies account for infection after thirty days, as in chronic Lyme. The Western blot tests for different parts, called bands, of the Borrelia bacteria. A combination of five IgG bands signals a positive test for chronic Lyme.
If you had a tick bite confirmed to carry Borrelia, and had the telltale bull’s eye rash and test positive by EIA for acute Lyme infection, take an antibiotic. The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for Lyme infection are amoxicillin and doxycycline.
If you suspect chronic Lyme, testing becomes complicated. Your doctor may start with the Western blot. But, even if you don’t have all five identified IgG bands, you still may have Lyme disease. Borrelia and coinfections can disable specific aspects of immune function and cause smoldering inflammation.
In our clinic, the next tests are complement C4a and HNK1 (CD57). Elevated C4a suggests chronic inflammation. Low CD57 natural killer cells correlate to Borrelia’s ability to weaken immunity.
For complex cases, a SPECT brain perfusion scan and MRI may be necessary. Additional immunological studies can also provide clues about inflammation and include T-helper 17 and T-helper 1 cytokines.
Antibiotics are useful for treating acute Lyme infection. The problem is that some people don’t get treated. In others, infection persists even after aggressive antibiotic therapy. Another concern is that some people get bitten, and don’t get the rash or have symptoms until much later.
Complicating the diagnosis of Lyme illness is that most patients with chronic Lyme disease have multiple co-infections. That’s why they have so many symptoms. Overlapping viral infections coupled with suppressed immunity sets the stage for chronic fatigue syndrome.
We tend to believe that plagues of the Biblical kind are behind us. We cleaned up our cities and vaccinated nearly everyone. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicate. But new infectious diseases are upon us like Lyme, as are Zika virus, Dengue, and Chikungunya. These are not just infections of the homeless and the poor, but a scourge on all classes of society.
The summers of 2017 and 2018 are looking like particularly risky years for Lyme.