‘You’re not treating an ear infection, you’re treating a possible brain infection’ — Diane Blanchard, Time for Lyme
More than thirty years after Lyme disease was identified in the eastern Connecticut town for which it was named, more than twenty years after public-health researcher Willy Burgdorfer discovered the bacterium that causes Lyme, and four years after Connecticut found itself with the undesirable distinction of having the second-highest incidence of the disease in the country, there is still no reliable test for the dreaded illness, and no surefire cure.
So, in a largely wooded state with increasing encroachment upon deer habitats and an exploding deer population, all optimal conditions for ticks to flourish, the only effective tool against contracting Lyme is prevention.
Prevention? For active people facing a glorious Connecticut summer, this might seem to be not enough. Indeed, the state’s Department of Public Health has just announced that the disease has increased by 34 percent in the last year. And everybody knows somebody who is suffering badly right this minute.
That’s why, after appraising the myriad issues surrounding this disease, Diane Blanchard, copresident of the advocacy group Time for Lyme, said, “If anything, things are worse than ever before.”
So what’s holding things up? For one thing, it’s an elaborately tricky disease.
Why so hard to diagnose?
The corkscrew-shaped bacterium that causes Lyme, Borrelia burgdorferi, possesses an ingeniousness that would be applauded if it weren’t also so perverse. This microscopic organism is transmitted to humans most often through the bite of a young black-legged deer tick that is barely bigger than a pinprick at the time of year — late spring to midsummer — when people wear summer clothes.
Delivered through the tick’s painless bite, the bacterium’s only distinctive visible manifestation is an expanding red rash, most commonly in the shape of a bull’s-eye. Known as an erythema migrans (EM), the rash is absent in anywhere from one-fourth to one-half the people who become infected.
This bacterium, called a spirochete, can enter the bloodstream as soon as twenty-four hours after attachment, carrying with it other tick-borne diseases, such as babesiosis and ehrlichiosis. Once in the blood, it can infect several body systems simultaneously, and because it can change form in different phases of its life cycle, it has a devious ability to circumvent a person’s immune system, avoid detection, and evade destruction. It produces an exhaustive array of constitutional, musculoskeletal and neurological symptoms — all of which can fluctuate.
Once it enters the body, it can lay dormant for months, even years, before unleashing its various forms of havoc, rendering those patients the hardest to treat.