According to Mary Beth Pfeiffer, author of Lyme: The First Epidenic of Climate Change, the blacklegged tick and the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia Burgdorferi, deserve our respect. "The ticks have amazing abilities. First of all, they wait forever on a little blade of grass, and there are so many out there that sooner or later one or two of them is going to get lucky and a mammal or a person will pass by. From 50' away, that tick can sense your breath--the carbon dioxide in your breath. It puts its tiny tiny little legs out hoping to snag onto a bit of cloth, your leg--what have you--and then climb aboard and do its dirty work.
"When it tries to bite it elicits a sort of numbing agent in its saliva, so that's why we don't feel when ticks bite us. It also has something in its saliva to prevent the coagulation of your blood because otherwise that very tasty little meal that it has set up will not take place. So it has all these ways of getting past our normal defenses where we might swat it away.
"The other thing is that that pathogen within ticks, the 'Lyme disease bug,' actually makes the tick stronger. They have found that infected ticks do better in the environment than uninfected ticks. They actually have more body fat, if you can imagine a fat tick. These are the ways that it has evolved over millions of years literally, to create the situation where it carries this organism and it infects mammals, and now it infects people."
Pfeiffer, an investigative journalist, can joke a little bit about the seriousness of her subject matter: "One of my reviewers compared it to a Stephen King novel...except that it's true! And that is a scary prospect that we have these ticks moving all over the place."
Pfeiffer says there is "a confluence of factors that have come together to sort of create a perfect storm to propagate tick-borne illness. There's a great deal of evidence that while climate change didn't cause this illness, certainly it is abetting it. It is fostering the movement of ticks around the planet. We see from archival data, for example, that ticks could only survive at something like 800 meters up a mountain in Europe. A very good scientist back in the '50s documented that. Now we see they're 1200 meters higher up that mountain, which is sort of a microcosm of what is going on around the globe, where it has become warmer--where temperatures have risen and there's a longer growing season; shorter winters. We are seeing ticks proliferate and move north in the northern hemisphere; south in the southern hemisphere.
"Beyond that, other factors include the way we live: the adulterated environments that we live in; those small forest fragments that deer certainly love and live very well in; where there are lots of mice as well. These are the factors that have really come together in the modern 21st-century world to set up a huge global epidemic of tick-borne disease."
The disease itself, including the test and treatment, is controversial. Says Pfeiffer, "There are two premises on which our Lyme treatment and diagnosis paradigm rests. Both of them are very much open to question. Mainstream medical dogma holds that Lyme disease can effectively and almost easily be diagnosed, either by the signal Lyme disease rash which appears early, sometimes, in the disease, or by a Lyme disease test--an antibody test--a 2-tier test which the CDC endorses. This dogma also holds that Lyme can be effectively eliminated from your body with 10-28 days of antibiotics.
"There's lots of evidence in the scientific literature which shows that the Lyme disease test fails at various times of the disease, at various stages. There's also well-known statistics that not everybody gets the Lyme disease rash. When the disease progresses--when it's not treated quickly/early/effectively--people's cases of Lyme disease are much more difficult to resolve.
"Then you get over to the treatment side of this illness--the assertion that short courses of antibiotics will effectively eliminate the disease--and there is again a lot of evidence in the scientific literature which questions that...which says that the long spirochete can persist. We've had many animal studies showing that Lyme disease is not always effectively eliminated, either in animal studies or in test tubes.
"We know--and this has been documented in the medical literature--that 10-20% of people who are treated early in the disease will continue to have signs and symptoms of lingering Lyme disease a year or more after treatment. These all combine to question the way we manage and treat and effectively have minimized Lyme disease."
Lyme disease disproportionately affects the young. Mary Beth Pfeiffer cites the following: "Children 5-14 years old are the single biggest group infected with Lyme disease every year." She offers some steps parents and communities can take to help kids stay safe.
- Place warning signs at the edges of fields, such as baseball fields
- Tell parents their kids need to be checked every night after going outside
- Use Permethrin-impregnated sox, shoes, clothing. "This really protects against ticks. Ticks will either bolt at the merest touch of that sort of fabric or die if they get stuck onto it...When you do a risk/benefit analysis, it is safe to use for yourself and even your children."
- Support more research into preventive measures
- Call schools to ask what they're doing to protect kids when they're on school property
- Write letters to the editor--encourage local papers to cover the disease. "We need more attention to be paid at almost every level."
The full interview with Mary Beth Pfeiffer is below. It includes her assessment of the Lone Star tick that is just showing up in Minnesota (the bite of which can cause a serious allergy to mammal meat), and other tick-borne diseases. Her book, Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change is published by Island Press.