September 22, 2019
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Is my Lyme disease part of a government conspiracy?

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

It’s OK to promote conspiracy theories now, right? Just following the president’s lead here. So here’s the one I’m all wrapped up in: I have Lyme disease.

The doctor called me recently with the results of my blood test after months of fatigue I couldn’t explain, aches and pains that made my movements more Greatest Generation than Gen X, and a fogginess I couldn’t shake.

I am one of the 30,000 cases of the tick-borne disease reported in the United States every year, a number that has nearly tripled over the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And since not all cases are reported, the CDC warns, the real number of Americans infected with Lyme could be as high as 300,000.

The numbers are growing? It must be a conspiracy. (Does Q know about Lyme?) But a conspiracy against whom?

It’s mostly found in white folks, according to CDC demographic studies. Most Lyme victims are men, but the older women get, the more likely they are to succumb. The CDC map tracking Lyme disease cases looks a little like the ACLU’s membership map, or L.L. Bean’s catalog market, with heavy action in the mid-Atlantic and New England.

Seems mighty specific, doesn’t it?

There’s a congressman from New Jersey who definitely thinks so. He’s demanding to know whether Lyme is part of a far-reaching, super-secret military bioweapons experiment from the Cold War gone awry.

In closing legislative action last month, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., added an amendment calling for the Defense Department’s inspector general to investigate whether the agency “experimented with ticks and other insects regarding use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975.”

Oh, my. That’s quite a Peter Parker scenario, the old infected-bug-bites-human saga.

Smith was reading a book, “Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons,” when he came to wonder about a conspiracy — an old favorite among the tinfoil-hatters.

Author Kris Newby was bitten by a tick in Martha’s Vineyard and sounded as frustrated and hobbled as I was while she tried to get a diagnosis.

She followed biowar veterans through interviews and archives, and she delved into the work of Swiss-born entomologist Willy Burgdorfer, who gave the bacteria its lesser-known name: Borrelia burgdorferi.

Some of those folks suggested that Lyme was developed as a bioweapon that would be carried by teeny-tiny ticks airdropped into enemy territory. The ticks of war. This is no anthrax or mustard gas. No, these little guys carry something much more subtle.

And yeah, that’s the real problem with this whole conspiracy theory.

That spider bite gave Peter Parker the agility, strength and web-spinning capabilities of its arachnid carrier, and Spider-Man was awesome.

But tick bites mostly make you feel like a tired, headachy, irritable, arthritic sack of goo who binge-watched Netflix until dawn. Like the superhero parody, the Tick, whose head always hurts.

It’s not really the most efficient way to vanquish your mortal enemy.

There are cases of Lyme that are severe — I’m well aware of that (and remind my husband of this daily). But the vast majority of them are solved with a quick course of antibiotics.

So as a weapon of war, Lyme is a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Plus, one of the scientists who has been studying Lyme since 1985, Sam Telford, wrote a compelling piece in The Washington Post over the weekend knocking down the conspiracy theory with a ton of data. My favorite part explained how he found evidence of the disease — “Jurassic Park” style — in mice and ticks preserved in museums since the 1800s.

The real reason for the increase in this stupid disease?

According to the CDC, there are more ticks around to carry it. Also, “the spread of Lyme disease over the past several decades has been linked to changes in land use patterns, including reforestation in the northeastern United States. Suburban development in these areas has increased the spread of these germs because people, ticks, deer, and tick hosts such as mice and chipmunks are in close contact.”

So, it’s the kind of stuff that no one wants to talk about in planning-commission meetings, as opposed to the White House Situation Room.

“Changing climate patterns can alter the natural environment and longstanding ecological relationships,” the CDC folks said. “We don’t know what those changes will be, but we know that climate is only one of several very important factors that influence the distribution and occurrence of vector-borne diseases.”

Did they say “changing climate”? Again, with the conspiracy theories.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team.

 



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