Lyme disease patients have faced an ongoing battle over the past four decades, as the disease struggles to be legitimised in the eyes of the mainstream medical community. Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning, and in 2018, Lyme is more visible than ever before. It’s no longer thought of as solely a North-eastern American disease, but is now accepted to be a worldwide problem, with reported cases on every continent and every state in the U.S. Although there are still grey areas surrounding the acceptance of the chronic form of Lyme disease in some medical circles, when it comes to facing the problem of Lyme head on, the future looks optimistic. With this increased visibility, patients and medical professionals are starting to ask the hard questions about the contraction and transmission of the disease. One of the recurring issues is whether Lyme can be carried over from mother to child in the womb.
Most people associate Lyme disease with ticks, and rightly so. Deer ticks are the sole carriers of the disease in North America, while sheep ticks perform the same function in Europe. So most people correctly assume you can be infected from a tick bite; what they severely underestimate is the amount of ticks that are out there. It’s surprisingly easy to get bitten by an offending tick, and even easier to not notice the bite. With an estimated one in three ticks carrying the offending Lyme strain of bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease is an extremely threatening problem, and one that is only increasing as global warming continues to affect the earth.
Lyme disease cannot be transmitted from person to person; you can’t contract Lyme from touching, being close to or breathing the same air as an infected person. That is not how the offending bacteria work. Unlike other viruses, they can’t migrate to another person through air, water or food. Although it might seem like Lyme is contagious because of the initial flu-like symptoms it presents, there have been no reported cases of Lyme disease being contracted from contact or close proximity to a patient. Cases of Lyme in the same family can almost always be chalked up to shared environmental factors. But when it comes to the case of an unborn child in the womb, the situation becomes a little more complicated.
This is a controversial area, as many public health authorities in the U.S. claim that there is no risk of the bacteria being transmitted from mother to foetus. However, many Lyme experts have seen repeated evidence that gestational transmission is occurring in a worrying number of cases. Dr. Carsten Nicolaus, the Medical Director of Lyme specialists BCA-clinic in Augsburg, Germany, estimates that the transmission risk could be as high as 20%. However, if a pregnant woman contracts Lyme disease while carrying, that number shoots up to minimum 60%, as the disease is in its bacteria-dominated acute stage. While pregnant women with Lyme are always advised to take antibiotics in order to reduce or eliminate the infection, Dr. Nicolaus recommends that pregnant women avoid transmission to the foetus by undergoing specifically designed treatment protocols. Even with chronic Lyme, the long-term form of the disease, the risk of gestational transmission is ever-present.
This is just another instance of Lyme experts disagreeing with the pronouncements of other health officials. The history of the disease is littered with these cases, and even now, forty-odd years after Lyme was first discovered, the two camps still don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. However, scientists and experts have long suspected that the Lyme-causing Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can be transmitted in the womb, as it shares the characteristics of many other ‘spirochetes’ (a family of bacteria to which Borrelia belongs), which are confirmed to be womb-transferrable. The syphilis bacteria shares many characteristics of Lyme disease, and is known to be gestationally transmitted, causing a wide range of debilitating birth defects. Yet the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) refers to a 2006 study and concludes that, although the placenta could potentially be infected, resulting in cases of miscarriage, there is no concrete evidence that supports the notion that Lyme symptoms are carried over from mother to child in the womb.
This confusion and difference of opinion is largely due to lack of thorough investigation into the topic. Further studies are undoubtedly the key to understanding the critical issue of gestational transmission of Lyme disease. Specifically, long-term studies are necessary, as Lyme is a particularly insidious disease that may not present for many months, or even years in some cases. Compounding the issue is the fact that symptoms are often varied and difficult to pinpoint; the disease becomes so entrenched in the patient’s system that infection symptoms entangle with inflammation symptoms, leading to huge instances of misdiagnoses and general confusion among both doctors and patients. As is often the answer when it comes to this enigmatic disease, continued research and studies are mostly certainly the way forward.