A discussion on infections would not be complete without mentioning Lyme disease. Lyme is a serious health problem that stirs up debate among health professionals given the controversy over its sources and the complexity of diagnosing and treating it. It may well be the number one emerging infectious disease of the 21st century. It is known to be caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, which is transmitted to humans by deer ticks found in woodlands (though evidence is being gathered that supports the notion that humans, mites, mosquitoes, and fleas also transmit the infection).
In many, the first symptom of Lyme is a “bull’s-eye” skin rash that forms at the site of the bite. This lesion is red and slowly gets bigger, usually with a clearing in the center. Not all people infected with Lyme notice this type of rash. Infected people may also have flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, fever, headache, stiff neck, and muscle or joint pain, possibly lasting several weeks. If the early stages of the disease are not recognized and treated, serious problems, such as nervous disorders, heart problems, or joint pain, may develop weeks or even months later.
B. burgdorferi, with its corkscrew shape, burrows into and through the body’s tissues. It also travels through the walls of blood vessels. Studies have shown that shortly after infecting a host, the Lyme organism can deeply embed itself inside tendons, muscle, the heart, and the brain. It invades tissue, replicates, and then destroys the host cell as it emerges. Besides causing widespread inflammation through its mode of travel, Borrelia also releases toxins-called bacterial lipoproteins-that trigger many harmful responses.
Lyme disease is referred to as “the Great Imitator” because it resembles other diseases. The fever, muscle aches, and fatigue of Lyme can be easily mistaken for viral infections, such as influenza. Joint pain can be mistaken for arthritis, and neurologic signs can mimic those caused by multiple sclerosis. Conversely, types of arthritis or neurologic diseases can be misdiagnosed as Lyme.
Further adding to the difficulty of diagnosing Lyme is the absence of a standard lab workup. Doctors generally use a variety of different blood tests to accumulate diagnostic data, but the procedures are not consistent given disagreement among doctors. Researchers have developed what they believe to be the best tests for Lyme, but the approval process with the Food and Drug Administration has proven to be arduous. Recently, a great deal of attention has been brought to Lyme’s implication as a causative factor in autistic spectrum disorders and Alzheimer’s. It is hoped that this will speed up the pace of well-organized research at all levels of science and healthcare.
General information promotes the idea that avoiding Lyme disease is as simple as avoiding tick bites. While the jury is still out on the matter of how Lyme is contracted, there might be a risk to anyone bitten by insects or who has had intimate contact with a Lyme-infected individual. Only time will tell just how severe a health threat Lyme disease represents, but for now it looks like the surface of this problem has barely been scratched. Become self-educated about Lyme disease and keep your eyes and ears open to news on this emerging epidemic.