Lyme disease is becoming increasingly visible in our health landscape, with more focus being turned on it with every passing year. Previously, it was a condition that many people classified as either an ‘American disease’, or a ‘North-Eastern disease’ if you live in America. And while it’s true that there is a high incidence of the condition in states like Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, Lyme has been recorded in every mainland state in the U.S., as well as almost all European and Asian countries. To say it is a worldwide epidemic is not hyperbole. Though more people are in the know about Lyme disease than ever before, not everyone is entirely sure how it’s contracted; for example, is it possible to transfer Lyme from person-to-person?
Most people associate Lyme disease with ticks, which is correct. The bacteria responsible for the Lyme virus, Borrelia burgdorferi, is carried by certain types of tick (the deer tick in America, the sheep tick in Europe and the taiga tick in China). Ticks attach themselves to humans in long grass or wooded areas, then migrate across the body until they find a suitable feeding patch. This can make it quite hard for people to tell that they’ve been bitten by a tick, as usually, the bite site won’t be obvious. Not all ticks carry Lyme, but it’s estimated that one in three do – a significant margin. The telltale sign of Lyme infection is a bullseye rash, which appears in the majority of cases. However, if the site of the bite is hidden away, then people can easily miss it. Once the rash fades, there is no easy way to tell if symptoms spring from Lyme or not, as the disease has the tendency to mimic symptoms of other conditions.
In the early stages, Lyme disease presents as a series of flu-like symptoms, often accompanied by the aforementioned rash. As a flu virus is notoriously contagious, people often wonder whether Lyme is highly contagious at this stage. The answer is highly unlikely. Lyme disease is an enigmatic condition that we are still collectively learning about; however, there is no evidence to show that the bacteria responsible can be transmitted through air, food, water or person-to-person contact. This is true when the disease is in its acute stages, where symptoms are flu-like, as well as in its chronic form, where the condition mutates into a long-term, debilitating illness. In the latter stages, symptoms are caused by relentless inflammation, as the immune system goes into overdrive attempting to fight back against the immovable bacteria.
There are cases where two or more people in the same family are infected, and people often point to these as being evidence of Lyme disease being contagious. A famous example of this, and one that’s helped propel Lyme into the spotlight, is the Hadid family. Yolanda Hadid suffered through a very public battle with Lyme disease on the popular reality show Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. A couple of years later, her supermodel daughter, Bella Hadid, opened up about her own struggles with the disease, while revealing that her brother, Anwar, also suffered from Lyme. While it might seem likely that these conditions were caused by contagion, they were almost certainly due to environmental factors. Bella and her brother spent the early parts of their childhood on a farm, which is where their mother thinks they were bitten by a tick. If numerous people in the same family suffer from the disease, it is mostly based on them living in the same environment and being exposed to ticks or other blood-sucking insects.
There is potentially a risk of contagion when it comes to blood transfusions. A common Lyme co-infection, babesiosis, can be transmitted via transfusions, so medical experts suspect that Borrelia bacteria could function the same way. Babesiosis, though proven to be transmitted, is not screened for in donor blood supplies. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has demonstrated that screening could reduce the instances of transfusion-acquired babesiosis. After analysing 89,153 blood samples, they found that 335 were infected with babesiosis, and these were subsequently removed from donor circulation. So while the medical evidence is not definitively there when it comes to Lyme disease itself, it’s certainly explicit with one of its most common co-infections.
We are still learning about Lyme and all of its varied co-infections; many doctors and medical institutions across the world, such as BCA-clinic, are pioneering new research and treatment plans every year. But until Lyme is fully recognised as the ever-present (and growing) threat that it is, cases across the world will continue to rise. Although Lyme disease is not contagious, it is incredibly easy to catch, and incredibly easy to misdiagnose once you have it.