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The History of Lyme Disease in the U.S.

Unfortunately for the many thousands of sufferers around the world, we don’t know a lot about the origins of Lyme disease. In fact, medical experts cannot even agree about what form the disorder takes; everyone agrees that acute Lyme is most definitely a legitimate medical disease, but when it comes to the much more elusive chronic Lyme, the medical community can’t seem to reach a consensus. Most of this has to do with the fact that the symptoms of Lyme change over time, and mutate as the bacteria become entangled more and more with the patient’s system. We do know, however, that whatever way it arrived in the U.S., Lyme is spread through ticks; these ticks have migrated across the country, spreading the disease to all states except Hawaii.

Lyme was discovered in the 19th century, but recent research shows that it was around long before then. The early settlers who arrived in the Northeast of America in the 18th century reported that forests in the area were rife with ticks, and records exist that describe numerous symptoms that are similar to ones we find with Lyme today, but without making the all-important connection between the sickness and tick bites. The first detailed description of what we now call Lyme was made as early as 1764, by Dr. John Walker when he visited Deer Island. Walker noticed unknown symptoms of an illness he couldn’t place, but wrote of patient grievances “which cause exquisite pain in the interior of the limbs”.


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Ticks transmit Lyme disease to approximately 30,000 Americans every year.


The exact cause of these troubling symptoms went undiagnosed for another two hundred odd years. Despite further European study which linked ticks and the distinctive bullseye rash they leave behind with the same symptoms experienced by some in America, Lyme was not christened until 1975. This makes it a relatively new entry into the pantheon of human afflictions, and maybe goes some way towards explaining why we collectively still know so little about it 43 years later. The town of Lyme, Connecticut was struck down by a mysterious illness in the early 1970s. Adults and children alike were found to be suffering from a series of puzzling issues, namely fevers, rashes, headaches, sore limbs and joints and chronic fatigue.


Doctors were stumped as to how to treat these patients, and their symptoms were left untreated for many years. However, patient advocate groups refused to take no for an answer, and demanded an explanation to their ongoing suffering. They began to conduct their own investigations into the strange disorder, studying symptoms, taking notes and badgering doctors and scientists. Their perseverance paid off, and eventually officials started taking them seriously, and managed to link the disease to a specific area. It was christened Lyme after the town where most of the patients originated from, and finally, after hundreds of years, the strange disease had a name.


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Many US patients recover from acute Lyme disease via the use of antibiotics; however, this does not work for chronic Lyme, which is why it’s essential to catch Lyme early.


It did not, however, have a cause. Patients would have to wait another seven years for that. Although many who complained of symptoms would also report being bitten by a tick, the link was not made until the scientist Willy Burgdorfer isolated and classified the bacteria Borrelia Burgdorferi as the cause of Lyme. He was initially studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (also caused by tick bites), which was how he made the connection. Subsequently, 60% of ticks in the surrounding Lyme township area were found to be carrying the offending bacteria, making Lyme a bona fide Lyme hotbed. Now that the disease had a name and a cause, doctors were better positioned to attempt a cure, which led to the ultimately successful use of antibiotics to treat the disease.


This antibiotic treatment, proposed in 1982, remains the accepted method of combating Lyme. However, there continues to be a debate over the effects and sustained treatment of Lyme, and whether the chronic form of the disorder is a legitimate entity. The habit of the disease to change its symptoms once it has infected its host makes it an extremely hard infection to pin down; despite early symptoms appearing consistently flu-like and often accompanied by a distinctive rash, it’s still a very hard task to diagnose Lyme in the acute stage if it’s not caught. This gives the disease time to develop and mutate into chronic Lyme, which mimics the symptoms of other degenerative diseases, and often masquerades as something it’s not, fooling doctors and patients alike.


Unlike other diseases in the developed world, the number of Lyme cases are actually on the rise in the U.S. In fact, it’s the fastest-growing vector-borne infections in the country. While many think of it as a primarily East Coast disease, the facts are that it has spread to every state in the country except Hawaii, and poses a very real and significant threat to citizens everywhere. The medical community’s continued indignation in the face of the growing chronic Lyme issue is only serving to hamper the search for a possible long-term cure, leading to poor diagnostic criteria and ineffective treatment methods. At the moment, the best defense most people have against Lyme is informing themselves thoroughly about the issue, and making sure they protect themselves against tick bites and their aftermath.

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