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History of Lyme Disease

The history of Lyme disease in North America begins in the 1970’s, when it officially became a disease in the United States, however, the disease dates back to 3300 BC.

Ötzi the Iceman is the oldest natural mummy ever discovered in Europe. He was found in a glacier along the mountainous border between Italy and Austria. What is of interest is that researchers discovered the DNA of Borrelia Burgdorferi in the body of Ötzi making him the first human being known of to have Lyme disease.

Thousands of years later in 1883 a German doctor, Alfred Buchwald, studied a patient who had lived with degenerative skin disease for 16 years. We now know that the condition was a late-stage symptom of the European strain of Lyme disease. Alfred Buchwald never drew a link between his patient’s disorder and a tick, or anything else for that matter.

In 1909 a Swedish dermatologist called Arvid Afzelius identified the now-famous bull’s-eye rash, and theorized that it was the result of a tick bite associated with Lyme disease. He gave the rash a name still used by the medical world today: erythema migrans. Due to his discovery he has a type of bacteria, Borrelia Afzelii, named after him.

Through the 20’s and 30’s several doctors observed patients with the E.M. rash and what appeared to be mild meningitis, but a link between the two was not yet made. Sven Hellerström, a Swedish dermatologist was the first to propose that the tick bite, the rash, and the neurological symptoms were part of the same condition. His theory was ignored by the medical community.

In 1970 a dermatologist from Wisconsin, Rudolph Scrimenti, had a patient with a strange rash. Doctor Scrimenti recognized it as an E.M. rash after recalling a paper by the aforementioned Sven Hellerström, and treated the patient with penicillin, basing his decision on the European literature on the subject. This was the first documented case of the rash in North America.

Through the 1970’s a concerned citizen from Lyme, Connecticut named Polly Murray, contacted the Centre for Disease Control until they sent specialists to find out why large numbers of children in her town had what appeared to be rheumatoid arthritis. The specialists checked air, water, dirt, and just about everything else trying to find what could cause the phenomenon. Then they realized that many of the children played near the edges of densely wooded areas, finally pinpointing the ticks, and by 1976 they had named the condition Lyme disease and set up antibiotic regimens to treat it.

During the 1980’s a team headed by Allen Speere started testing various antibiotic regimens to treat the new disease. At the same time Willy Burgdorfer, a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, was studying and examining ticks from New York when he noticed a spirochete that he had never seen before. He checked the rest of the ticks he had on hand, and found that 60% of them carried the organism.

Burgdorfer had been trained in Europe, where the link between a spirochete and the bull’s-eye rash had been hypothesized, so he chased the lead by obtaining more ticks and some blood samples from people diagnosed with Lyme disease. Eventually he isolated the spirochete in Lyme disease sufferers and published his findings, earning him the honor of having his discovery named after him: Borrelia Burgdorferi. With the causative bacteria identified, more antibiotic testing commenced, as did many other lines of research into the organism and the disease. The results have been varied and almost always politicized.

Through the ’90’s the pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoSmithKline developed a Lyme disease vaccine, LYMErix, finally releasing it in 1998. By 2002 the vaccine no longer existed because of concerns that it was causing severe autoimmune reactions.

In 2013 scientists discovered a new Lyme-like disease caused by a bacteria of Japanese origin– Borrelia miyamotoi – in humans living in New England and New York. The disease is a distant relative of Lyme disease, and is noted for those infected experiencing recurring fevers. We have known about Borrelia miyamotoi for some time, but had never seen it in people before.