Lyme disease has been running rampant across the world for decades. Although it was only officially discovered in 1975, it had undoubtedly been plaguing humans for many years before. In 2019, it is one of the most consistent and debilitating conditions we can face, and instances of it are on the rise. Over 300,000 new cases are reported to the American CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) every year, and those are only the cases that are noticed. Lyme disease is an easy condition to misdiagnose, and estimations conclude that this is routine in many medical circles. As well as America, Lyme disease has spread all over Europe, and continues to make its presence known there. And yet many people aren’t fully clued in about the disorder, or the mechanics behind it. Is Lyme disease an epidemic? Is Lyme disease a pandemic? And if so, what can we do about it?
The question of how to stop the spread of Lyme disease is not an easy one to answer. Firstly, it is high time to qualify Lyme as a pandemic, as opposed to an endemic, which it has previously been classified as. An endemic is defined by geographical borders and is contained within one particular region or locality. A pandemic, on the other hand, describes a worldwide spread of a virus or disease. Unfortunately, Lyme disease is very much a global issue, and can now aptly be described as a pandemic. Many people might not even know how you contract it, wondering, ‘what is Lyme disease spread by?’ Transmitted to humans via tick bites, Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia strain of bacteria. There are two distinct stages to Lyme: the widely accepted acute stage, and the more controversial chronic stage. The acute stage causes flu-like symptoms, which can be surprisingly mild for such a dangerous condition. Unfortunately, this mildness also means they can be easily be written off as a simple bout of flu.
The single best indicator of Lyme is the distinctive bullseye rash that forms around the site of the bite in the majority of cases. However, this can easily be missed if the person doesn’t realise they’ve been bitten. Ticks will actively seek out sheltered areas on the body before they bite, which gives them the best chance of going undetected. This means that people have to be extremely vigilant when it comes to tick detection. Because of the poor visibility of Lyme disease and its consequences, sadly this is not the case most of the time. One of the most ironic things about Lyme is that, even if you get bitten, acute Lyme is easily treated with a round or two of antibiotics. However, when it is left to degenerate into chronic Lyme, then the problems really start. Chronic Lyme symptoms are produced by the interplay of infection and inflammation. The immune system overreacts to the bacteria it can’t seem to eradicate, and goes haywire, resulting in constant fatigue and muscle aches and pains.
The symptoms of chronic Lyme vary wildly from patient to patient, which makes misdiagnosis extremely common. The chronic form of the disease is not even fully recognised by many official bodies, making it difficult for patients to receive clarity from their doctors. Misinformation and lack of proper education, both on a public and medical scale, is one of the reasons that Lyme has been allowed to spread unchecked across the world. Although this is improving, it has been absent long enough to do untold damage for many patients, and has allowed the situation to get out of hand. To reiterate: acute Lyme is an accepted disorder, which is easily treatable if caught in time. Chronic Lyme is a much more insidious disorder, which is both controversial in mainstream medicine and very difficult to treat. Global warming is also a contributing factor to the spread of Lyme disease; it allows ticks to live longer and travel further, increasing the threat of Lyme across both seasonal and geographical markers.
So what are scientists, doctors and governments doing to combat the upswing in Lyme disease? Many people wonder if there will ever be a vaccine for the disease. Well, there once was one. Introduced in 1998, it was called LYMErix, and all evidence pointed to it being largely successful in tackling the disease. Unfortunately, LYMErix severely damaged many patients with chronic Lyme disease and has therefore been withdrawn from the market. In addition, the vaccine offered only incomplete protection, only guarding against the Borrelia burgdorferi strain; other strains such as Borrelia garinii and afzelii were not included. New vaccines are currently being developed and tested, but optimistically, these are half a decade away from being widely available. Moving away from vaccines, other scientists want to treat Lyme as an ecological problem, aiming to stem the tide of the disease by causing genetic changes in the mammals that ticks feed on – effectively incapacitating ticks before they can make their way to humans. There are even some plans to use robots to eradicate ticks, by tricking the creatures into jumping onto specially designed cloth.
While these kinds of initiatives are undeniably important, visibility and education are the best short-term tools we have in the fight against Lyme. BCA-clinic in Germany is one of the most Lyme-literate institutes in the world, and regularly assesses cases of chronic Lyme. The clinic, and other places like it, provide an invaluable resource for patients who suffer from Lyme, and who may not be taken seriously by their primary healthcare advisor. Lyme disease is undeniably a pandemic, and the sooner we fully recognise what we’re dealing with, the sooner we can take measures to prevent it.