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Lyme Disease Is Really Really Old

Lyme disease

Lyme disease has been around for less than half a century, or has it? A new discovery indicates that the bacteria responsible for the disease has been in existence for a really, really long time, say about 15 million years.

Modern day researchers first took note of the rash and other symptoms associated with what we today call Lyme disease in the early 1970s. It was not until 1981, however, that two National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease experts discovered and named the bacteria that causes the disease, Borrelia burgdorferi.

Little did anyone know, then or until now, that these bacteria have incredible staying power. That discovery came when Oregon State University researchers just found fossil evidence of the microorganism in amber that is 15 to 20 million years old.

When you combine these extremely opportunistic bacteria with an equally available host, the relationship can prove to be a major problem. This has become apparent in recent years as the number of people being diagnosed with Lyme disease continues to rise.

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The good news about Lyme disease is that if you recognize and treat it early with antibiotics, it can be cured. However, failure to take these initial steps can result in a lifetime of joint pain, muscle weakness and/or numbness, life-changing pain in the joints, heart problems, stiff neck, headache, confusion, and fatigue, among other symptoms.

According to George Poinar, Jr., an international expert on life forms preserved in amber and a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science, ticks and the diseases they are capable of carrying are often not recognized by doctors. “It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.”

Why should you care about the discovery of proof of Lyme disease in a 15-million-year-old piece of amber? One reason is to drive home the fact that we are dealing with an extremely hardy organism that everyone should take seriously.

  • Undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or untreated Lyme disease, or Lyme disease that is managed too late, can result in a lifetime of symptoms. See your doctor if you experience a rash (although a rash does not always appear after a tick bite), have had a tick bite, and/or you have any of the symptoms of Lyme disease
  • Be sure you learn about Lyme disease and ticks
  • Learn how to remove a tick properly
  • If you have pets, learn how to prevent and treat Lyme disease in dogs and cats
  • Become familiar with tick repellents

It appears Lyme disease has been around for millions of years. Unlike our ancestors, at least we have ways to recognize and treat it properly.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
Oregon State University
Poinar G. Spirochete-like cells in a Dominican amber Ambylommatick (Arachnida: lxodidae). Historical Biology 2014; 1

Image: Wikimedia Commons