It’s an inconvenient truth that Lyme disease is spreading. It’s no longer confined to the North Eastern United States, where it was first diagnosed and christened, but has infected every single state in the U.S., with the exception of Hawaii. The disease is on the rise in Europe, too; previously, it could largely be found in mid-European countries like Estonia and the Czech Republic, but now spans the full length of the continent, from Russia to Ireland. Amazingly, in the face of this growing epidemic, chronic Lyme is still not considered a legitimate disease in most medical circles, meaning huge numbers of cases go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed every year. Global warming has been proven to play a significant part in this increase – but why, exactly? And what effect does it have on Lyme disease?
To understand why global warming affects Lyme disease, it’s first important to understand exactly how Lyme is transmitted to humans. Most people know that you catch the disease via tick bites, but it is not actually the ticks that infect the person. It is in fact a strain of bacteria known as Borrelia that causes Lyme disease, and not all ticks carry it. You can be bitten by a tick and not contract Lyme, although that probability is lessening by the day. Part of the reason why Lyme disease is so hard to diagnose correctly is that these tick bites are not easy to spot. The ticks carry a numbing agent in their saliva, which makes it impossible to feel their bites. Unless you physically see the tick, it can be very hard to tell you’ve been bitten by one.
Ticks attach themselves to humans in a number of ways, but the most common method is known as ‘questing’, which involves the ticks clinging to tall pieces of grass with their legs outstretched, waiting to climb onto their host. Contrary to popular belief, ticks can neither jump nor fly, but they are experts at attaching themselves when given the barest hint of opportunity. Exactly how humans contract Lyme disease is important, as it’s these ticks that are being propelled by global warming. The bottom line is that these ticks can now survive in environments where they would’ve previously frozen to death a few decades ago.
This is the reason why the ticks carrying Lyme-causing bacteria are spreading across both Europe and America. Previously, Lyme was thought to have been contained in the states of Maine, Connecticut, rural New York and Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. It was unthinkable that you could catch Lyme in states like Florida or California. Climate change, however, has given ticks the freedom to migrate, with longer summers allowing them to live longer, spread wider and breed faster. Now, cases of Lyme in Florida and California are growing exponentially, along with every state on the U.S. mainland.
Traditionally, Lyme Disease Awareness Month has been held in May, which was seen as the start of the tick season. Specialists are now suggesting that, due to global warming giving the ticks a longer lease on life, this awareness month should be moved from May to April. This sudden upswing in the tick population and the extension of the lives of ticks are not generally well understood by the general population, and represent yet another aspect of Lyme disease in which both doctors and patients alike need to be thoroughly educated.
Lyme is also tracked as an indicator of climate change, meaning that we can measure the effects of global warming by looking at the increasing instances of Lyme all over the world. It joins wildfires and heat-related deaths as a clear sign that climate change is affecting the way we live in the world today. Indeed, it might not be a stretch to call Lyme the first endemic of global warming; previously, the disease was prevalent yet still kept under control by the standardisation of temperatures. In 2018, we find that Lyme is spiralling further and further out of control, with huge numbers of fresh cases being reported each year. Although there are human failures in the detection and diagnosis of Lyme, including chronic misdiagnosing and a lack of empathy and understanding among doctors, one of the main factors in the spread of Lyme disease is undoubtedly our changing climate. We’ve given the ticks too much room to breathe, as it were, and now we must deal with the consequences.
All is not lost, though – there are medical professionals all over the world who understand Lyme, and want to make the condition bearable for patients. One of these places is the BCA-clinic in Germany, who have been studying the effects of Lyme and tick-borne diseases for many years, and aiding in the treatment of patients from all over the world. Although climate change is undoubtedly making the disease more prevalent, with the right methods of education and diagnosis, we can fight back against Lyme in the years ahead.