According to Yale University researchers, the bacterium causing Lyme disease has circulated in the forests of North America for 60,000 years. Carried by ticks, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi had been limited primarily to deer as their animal host. However, with forest fragmentation and a surge in the deer population, the ticks have multiplied, carrying the infection to other mammals including humans.
Lyme disease came to public attention suddenly in the 1970s when a group of children in Lyme, Connecticut, began exhibiting odd symptoms – bull’s eye shaped rashes, swollen knees, partial paralysis, headaches, and fatigue. The cause of the illness was identified in the 1980s: a spiral shaped bacterium called a spirochete that was carried by the Ixodes tick. The pathogen was isolated by scientist Willy Burgdorfer, after whom it is named.
The troubling range of symptoms that accompany this infection, which include stabbing sensations, vertigo, hives, memory problems, has made diagnosis and treatment a challenge for doctors. An article in TheAtlantic chronicles one patient’s 15-year journey to a clear diagnosis.
To complicate matters further, new research suggests that other tickborne pathogens may act as co-infections, and that these can be carried, and perhaps even transmitted to humans, by mosquitoes and other arthropods. While chronic lyme disease is a controversial syndrome that is not accepted by the infectious disease community, the complex pattern of neurological, cardiovascular and other symptoms are not seen in most people with chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia. The evolving research into this condition will be important to follow.
Dr. Burgdorfer, who studied arthropods and human pathogens over his 35-year career with the US government at their Rocky Mountain Laboratory, passed away in 2014. Research materials from his work on Lyme are held in the archives of the Utah Valley University. These notes may hold additional insight into the sudden emergence of the pathogen.
LWP Lyme Plus