Dr. Brita Kilburg-Basnyat

As we exit the lemonade season and approach the upcoming fall, I’m sure ticks are the farthest thing from your mind. But it shouldn’t be—the season lasts from May to November and Lyme disease, from tick bites, is on the rise. 

Over the last 20 years, the estimated number of Lyme disease cases in the United States has almost tripled to 300,000 per year. It’s no coincidence there has been both a rise in global temperatures and an increase in Lyme disease over the last three years. This increase in temperature has allowed a variety of vermin, including ticks, to have better survivability without the cold temperature to keep them, and other vermin, at bay.

Lyme disease’s origin

Lyme disease was first identified in the mid-1970s when a cluster of adults and children became sick with arthritis symptoms and fever, headache, fatigue, and rash. Lyme, Connecticut, gave Lyme disease its name. 

However, Lyme disease, which is caused by the bacteria borrelia burgdorferi, doesn’t originate in the ticks themselves. It starts with the white-foot mouse where 40 percent to 90 percent of the population carries the bacteria. Often black-legged ticks catch the bacteria when they use the mice for their first blood meals and the bacteria later gets passed to humans.

Symptoms and treatment

Lyme disease can be hard to spot because the symptoms can be vague and can include a wide variety of symptoms including fever, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and bulls-eye pattern rash. However, when spotted early, it is easily treatable with antibiotics. If treatment, such as antibiotics, is given or Lyme disease isn’t caught early enough, it can progress spreading to the heart and the nervous system resulting in more serious problems.

In the lab, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease is most detectable a few weeks after an infection — after your body has had time to develop antibodies against the bacteria. There are a few ways that it can be detected: Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test and a Western Blot test. Western blot is usually used to confirm a positive ELISA test. However, the rash associated with Lyme disease is usually distinctive enough for a diagnosis. ELISAs for Lyme disease involves taking human serum (a component of blood), other antibodies and color indicators (substrates) to detect human antibodies. 

During Lyme disease infection, our bodies produce IgM and IgG antibodies against the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. ELISA’s help detect these antibodies. 

Western Blots essentially break the antibodies into fragments and rank them by weight and charge to compare with other patients that have confirmed patients of Lyme disease. Unfortunately, some patients can still have Lyme disease but fail both tests. In addition to the limited time that antibodies are present for detection, additional variability between individuals may result in false negative results. 

Solutions to the problem

Over the years, there have been various attempts to keep Lyme disease in check. One way that has been somewhat successful is culling the deer population. Many people are aware that ticks are a problem in deer (hence the popular nick name “deer ticks”) and deer hunting season has been shown to help reduce the spread of Lyme disease. 

However, additional creative efforts have also been taken which may not necessarily be feasible. This has included culling the deer population, leaving pyrethrin soaked cotton balls for mice nests to control ticks in the mouse population, and genetically engineering a mouse that is immune to the bacteria. The latter solution is explored in a PBS documentary called, “Could Genetically Engineered Mice Reduce Lyme Disease?” 

Essentially, the genetical engineering approach is taking mice immune to the bacteria, identifying the DNA that is creating that immunity and inserting the DNA into mice that would otherwise not be immune. The idea is to introduce more than 100,000 mice in Nantucket that would be immune to the disease. These immune mice would then mate with native mice, resulting in a high percentage of offspring that would be immune. Some 40 percent of Nantucket’s residence currently have or have had Lyme disease, making it a major problem in the area. However, the researchers are aware that introducing a genetically engineered species could have repercussions and the idea is being investigated. 

– Dr. Brita Kilburg-Basnyat is a 2006 graduate of Maquoketa High School. She earned a doctorate in human toxicology. She studied how ozone alters your ability to break down lipids, or fats, that are used in the immune system at East Carolina University and now lives in Wisconsin. She can be reached at dr.bkilburg@gmail.com.