Lyme disease is a controversial and often misunderstood topic among medical professionals and patients alike. However, it represents a serious, insidious threat to the global population’s health, as it’s one of the most common vector-borne – and fastest growing – diseases out there. Compounding the danger is the fact that very few doctors understand the true implications of long-term Lyme infection, and how debilitating it can be for patients. Despite Lyme being a worldwide problem, many people in Europe believe it to be an ‘American’ disease, as much of the focus on the disorder has come from the U.S. Where does Lyme get this reputation from, and why is this myth so dangerous to potential sufferers outside of America?
To start with, Lyme was discovered in the U.S., in the town which gave the disease its name: Old Lyme, Connecticut. In the early 1970s, a group of Old Lyme locals were plagued by a series of bizarre symptoms, including swollen joints, paralysis, headaches and chronic fatigue. Despite a number of doctor’s visits and hospital stays, the medical community at the time had few answers for the patients, and their ailments went untreated for years. It was down to the perseverance of two patient advocates that the disorder was christened with a name; they took detailed notes of each sufferer’s symptoms, linking them in an undeniable way. Doctors named the condition after the town, but still had no idea what caused it.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the crucial link between the deer tick and Lyme was uncovered, by a scientist named Willy Burgdorfer. He discovered that a specific form of borrelia bacteria was causing the infection, and was spread into the bloodstream by a specific species of tick, which was prolific in Connecticut. Armed with this information, and advances in the medical field, doctors were able to combat the disease with a course of antibiotics, which was accepted by the larger medical community as the definitive way to treat Lyme. However, this created another schism between doctors and patients, as the existence of two separate forms of Lyme were debated; the acute phase, which occurred rapidly following the tick bite, and the chronic phase, a deep-rooted infection which manifested in a different way.
This debate continues to this day, and is another large reason why Lyme is seen as an American problem. Despite having a unique set of symptoms, chronic Lyme disease is not a medically-accepted issue. Instead, it’s painted as some kind of umbrella term that people use to describe signs of getting older, or at worst, the onset of some kind of obsessive mental disorder. America sometimes has a reputation for overdramatics and eccentricity among the rest of the world and, unfortunately, the overriding view of chronic Lyme as fiction squares nicely with that impression.
However, chronic Lyme disease is very real, and extremely debilitating for those who suffer from it. The early stages of the disease manifest as flu-like symptoms, often with the presence of a distinctive bullseye rash. Once it moves past the acute stage, and embeds itself into the host’s system, it begins to mimic the symptoms of other disorders such as MS and fibromyalgia, presenting as joint pain, immovability, fatigue, short-term memory loss, numbness, depression and heart problems. When the disease is this far entrenched, it is a long, drawn-out process to remove it entirely, and a multi-pronged approach is usually required.
The spread of Lyme in the last twenty years has been significant. Just as the rest of the world views the disease as an American problem, the majority of people in the U.S. view it as solely an East Coast problem. However, Lyme has been reported in every state except Hawaii; due to increased deforestation across the country, more and more ticks are coming into close contact with humans, leading to an uncontrollable spread of the infection, muddied by cynicism of its long-term effects. The same is true in Europe and Asia; Lyme has been flagged in the majority of countries, and statistics show it is on the rise across the continents.
Recent research has hypothesised that the disease didn’t even originate in America but in fact may have started in Europe, and may have been around since before the Ice Age. It is believed to have been present in the U.S. for at least 60,000 years, and has recently become prevalent due to climate change, migration and deforestation. The number of Lyme cases have more than doubled since the 1990s, and similar statistics are estimated for Europe. It’s high time that we stop thinking of Lyme as an American issue, and realise that it’s a threat to people all around the world. The sooner we do that, the better chance we have of successfully recognising and treating the disease.