Ticks and Lyme disease have been around for thousands of years. In fact, a recent autopsy on a 5,300-year-old mummy indicated the presence of the bacteria which causes Lyme disease. A German physician, Alfred Buchwald, first described the chronic skin rash, or erythema migrans, of what is now known to be Lyme disease more than 130 years ago. However, Lyme disease was only recognized in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. And the bacteria that causes it—Borrelia burgdorferi—wasn’t officially classified until 1981.
In the early 1970s a group of children and adults in Lyme, Connecticut, and the surrounding areas were suffering from some puzzling and debilitating health issues. Their symptoms included swollen knees, paralysis, skin rashes, headaches, and severe chronic fatigue. Visits with doctors and hospital stays had become all too common.
These families were left undiagnosed and untreated for years during the 1960s and 70s. If it wasn’t for the persistence of two mothers from this group in Connecticut, Lyme disease might still be little-known even today. These patient advocates began to take notes, conduct their own research, and contact scientists.
The medical establishment began to study the group’s symptoms and looked for several possible causes. Was it germs in the air or water? The children had reported skin rashes followed very quickly by arthritic conditions. And they had all recalled being bitten by a tick in the region of Lyme, Connecticut.
Finally, by the mid-70s, researchers began describing the signs and symptoms of this new disease. They called it Lyme, but they still didn’t know what caused it.
In 1981, a scientist who was studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (also caused by a tick bite) began to study Lyme disease. This scientist, Willy Burgdorfer, found the connection between the deer tick and the disease. He discovered that a bacterium called a spirochete, carried by ticks, was causing Lyme. The medical community honored Dr. Burgdorfer’s discovery in 1982 by naming the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi.
With extensive backgrounds on Lyme patients and the scientific discoveries that ensued, doctors began to use several antibiotics to treat the disease. This treatment is currently accepted by the medical profession and has been largely successful, especially for those with early-stage Lyme disease. However, there continues to be heavy debate on the long-term use of antibiotics for Lyme that has progressed or appears resistant to a short course of antibiotics.
Since the 1980s, reports of Lyme disease have increased dramatically to the point that the disease has become an important public health problem in many areas of the United States.
In 2012, Lyme disease was included as one of the top ten notifiable diseases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Lyme disease is one of the fastest-growing vector-borne infections in the United States with ~500,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year.
While it was primarily an East Coast phenomenon in the beginning, it has since been reported in all states except Hawaii. And diagnostic tools are still unreliable—as of yet there is no definitive cure for those with late-stage Lyme.
At Bay Area Lyme Foundation we are determined to drive new research and accelerate the day when Lyme disease is easy to diagnose and simple to cure.