One of our medical practice's specializations is in helping patients get properly diagnosed with Lyme disease suffered by our patients. We know that Lyme disease has spread to the West Coast, and has a number of symptoms and health implications. New studies are now exploring the migration patterns of the black-legged tick, and the burden it places on its victims.
The Low-Down on Lyme Disease
Most people are aware Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness. Understanding how ticks spread Lyme, and the bacteria that causes it, gives you better understanding of the disease and maybe, how to avoid it. Consider these facts:
- Found on every continent except Antarctica, Lyme disease is diagnosed in approximately 300,000 Americans per year. Recent research suggests the spread of Lyme disease occurred as a result of ongoing migration of black-legged ticks from original southern populations into northern and western regions.
- Originally documented in the small coastal Connecticut town of Lyme, the spirochete that causes the condition is called Borrelia burgdorferi, after Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, the physician who isolated the spirochete.
- Ticks are arachnids, like spiders. But ticks feed entirely on blood throughout their lives, from larvae to adult. Conditions during their early life cycle set the stage for how damaging they are when adults.
- Deer, and the deer ticks they carry, are almost exclusively blamed for the presence and spread of Lyme disease. While it is true that where there are deer, there are likely to be ticks, there is another major culprit involved, mice.
- As larvae, ticks have a hard time catching a ride on a deer. Instead they turn to mice, usually white-footed mice. While most animals with a tick-on-board bite and chew at the tick to get rid of it, white-footed mice are largely indifferent to the multitude of ticks that hop aboard.
A study from Sarah Lawrence University found that ticks and white-footed mice have a counterintuitive relationship. Even as dozens of ticks feed on one mouse, the longevity and health of the mouse is not affected. One researcher notes,"Tick burdens were not correlated with reductions in white-footed mouse survival or overwintering success, and they didn't slow population growth. It looks like ticks are getting a free lunch."
As the number of natural predators of mice decline due to habitat destruction by humans, the population of mice and ticks - booms. Larval ticks are infected by mice, who are the primary carriers of the Lyme bacteria. After molting, the now nymph-size tick is large enough to feed on and infect deer. Infected deer, in turn, become contagion reservoirs, and infect other ticks.
So, where there are mice, there are ticks. Research has shown use of a vaccine in mouse bait reduces the overall infection rate of ticks. Mice and ticks share the same brush-y habitat, so be sure to keep your yard clear.
Why does this matter to humans? It matters because the suffering, and financial burden, of Lyme disease on human populations is getting out of control.
Research Calls for Unified Approach to Lyme Disease
In a study published in 2014, researchers outlined the critical need for a federal project to check the epidemic-like spread of Lyme disease. Controversy has arisen over definition of acute and chronic symptoms of the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report Lyme disease is the most reported vector-borne illness in the country. Against that backdrop, a 2015 study from Johns Hopkins took a hard look at health care costs and patterns of care for Lyme disease.
Reviewing medical data of 47 million patients enrolled in several health care plans, researchers looked at more than 50,000 cases where patients were treated for Lyme disease, and its after-effects, between the years 2006 and 2010.
The study yielded sobering findings:
- Chronic illness associated with Lyme disease is more widespread, and more serious, than thought.
- The cost of managing current and new cases of Lyme disease in this country is between $712 million and $1.3 billion per year, at an average of $3,000 per patient.
- Even after treatment with antibiotics, symptoms like fatigue, headaches, memory problems, and musculoskeletal pain are termed chronic Lyme disease, or post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). Controversy continues as there is no gold-standard test for proving the presence of PTLDS.
The study also found 63 percent of patients who received antibiotics for Lyme disease suffered some form of PTLDS. Without a comprehensive understanding of the disease, or a unified prevention task force as suggested by researchers, people are contracting Lyme disease at higher rates, and suffering from continuing chronic symptoms even after diagnosis and treatment.
Notes the lead author of the John Hopkins study:
"These patients are lost, no one really knows what to do with them. It's a challenge, but the first thing we need to do is recognize this is a problem. There's not a magic pill. These patients already got the magic pill and it didn't work."
The best way to deal with Lyme disease is to prevent it. If you are infected, get accurate information and good medical advocacy. Contact our office when you have questions or concerns about Lyme disease, or chronic Lyme symptoms.