Cases of Lyme disease, like the ticks that transmit it, are ballooning in some parts of the country.
A recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter, entitled “The Lyme Wars,” recounts in gripping detail the troubling efforts of scientists and doctors to curtail the spread and consequences of Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is spread by tick bite. More specifically, by the bite of ticks http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/transmission/ carrying the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Cases of Lyme disease in San Diego County are exceedingly uncommon, but not unheard of.
In much of the rest of the country, however, Lyme disease is a growing public health problem. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 38,000 cases, three times more than in 1991, but most observers believed the actual number was much higher.
And, in fact, it is: Earlier this month, the CDC dramatically revised its estimate of infection, reporting that Lyme disease is 10 times more common than previously thought. The new estimate: At least 300,000 Americans contract the disease each year.
That’s worrisome news because Lyme disease remains a highly problematic and poorly understood ailment. As Specter notes, nearly everything about it – symptoms, diagnosis, prevalence, behavior of the bacterial spirochete after it enters the human body from a tick bite and treatment – is either woefully incomplete or wildly in dispute. It was only recently, for example, that researchers debunked an asserted link between Lyme disease and autism.
Specter’s article, buttressed by the CDC’s new infection numbers, does not paint a particularly encouraging picture. Until 1977, when Lyme disease was definitively described for the first time by a Yale University rheumatologist named Allen Steere, the condition was essentially unknown. Much research obviously remains to be done. There are many more questions than answers.
On the hopeful front, however, there’s this: Researchers in May reported that a vaccine for Lyme disease that is currently in clinical trials appears promising, with significant effectiveness against all of the targeted tick species that carry Borrelia. Success can’t happen fast enough.
The clock is ticking.