With the beginning of the warm season, the British scientific magazine New Scientist warns against an explosive proliferation of the common wood tick (Ixodes ricinus). This blood-sucking tick is the major carrier of the multisystemic infectious disease Borreliosis, better known as Lyme Disease in the English-speaking world. It is named after the potentially long-lasting inflammation of the nervous system, joints and various internal organs in Lyme and Old Lyme, Connecticut State on the East Coast of the United States, where a mass outbreak of the disease was first observed in 1975. The infection is caused by the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb). The US researcher Rick Ostfeld has observed that mass infections always follow an intensive acorn-fruiting year at intervals of about one and a half years. Apart from wild boars, the fallen acorns are a main food source for mice. After an autumn with plentiful acorns, there is always a mass reproduction of mice in the following year. These are easily infected by ticks, most of which may be infected by Borrelia. The infected mice are in turn infected by other bloodsuckers and thus become the most significant carrier of the disease-causing bacteria. A single mouse can contain hundreds of tick larvae in its blood vessels. In these conditions, the pests can also hibernate well, while adult ticks usually fall victim to hypothermia in winter.
Today Lyme borreliosis (LB, not to be confused with virally transmitted early summer meningo-encephalitis, TBE) is considered the world’s fastest spreading infectious disease. In America, about 300,000 infections are expected annually. For Europe, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the number of annual infections at 65,000, and the disease continues to spread from the south to the northeast every year. This year, the Polish health authorities flagged a warning. It is estimated that LB plays a role, of varying significance, in half of all patients with chronic conditions. It also cannot be excluded that the disease is also transmitted within families from person to person or from pregnant women to foetuses and through breast milk to infants. Since the symptoms of chronic LB are non-specific, it is not easy to distinguish them from other chronic nerve diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Bb antibodies have been detected in almost all Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients. Whether there is a direct link between Bb infections and the aforementioned degenerations of the central nervous system, however, is not proven.
In the south and east of our country up to half of wood ticks could be infected with Bb, in the north it is only 5 to 10 percent. In addition to ticks, mosquitoes, mites and horseflies can also be carriers. Between 135 and 300 infections per 100,000 inhabitants are reported from Austria. In Switzerland, between 25 and 130. 70 percent of the reports are for the months June to September. Fortunately, not every tick bite leads to infection, but only one to six percent, depending on the degree of infection in an area.
The first symptom of an infection is the so-called erythema around the puncture site. However, it only occurs in about half of the cases. In addition, the infection becomes noticeable after 10 to 14 days through a mild flu-like fever as well as feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. It is very difficult to detect Bb infection at an early stage, especially since antibodies are usually not yet detectable in the blood. If Bb infection is suspected, many doctors therefore administer antibiotics such as doxycycline as a precautionary measure. However, the antibiotics, which are often not easily tolerated, must be taken over a longer period of time in order to be able to fight several generations of Bb. The Bb reproduction cycle lasts seven days, which is unusually long for bacteria. If the infection cannot be stopped in the initial phase, the pathogens spread throughout the entire body after about 4 to 16 weeks. This leads to severe sweating and other flu-like symptoms such as fever, limb pain and headaches. It is therefore important to start treatment as early as possible. For the prevention and treatment of chronic Bb infections, preparations from the bast or inner bark of the tropical cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) have proven effective. (We recently reported on this in detail.)
Borrelia quickly pass from the blood into the connective tissue and are then mostly sheltered from the body’s immune system as well as from attack by antibiotics. This is also due to the fact that Bb can survive as mycoplasma without cell walls for a long time under certain conditions. They are then no longer susceptible to attack by most antibiotics targeting the cell walls. The mycoplasma can then remain dormant for years until it begins to grow, benefiting from a stress-related immune deficiency. Cholesterol is essential for this. It extracts it from the cell walls of the glial cells that surround the motor nerves as nutrient cells. If the glial cells respond to this, a lot of glutamate is released. Excess glutamate is converted into urea. By releasing an ammonium ion, the urea can become highly toxic prussic acid. This cripples the mitochondria, the power supplies for cells. This explains fatigue and exhaustion, which are not only observed in LB patients, but also in ALS patients, for example.
The ability to survive and even crystallize in a dormant state as mycoplasma for a long time has made Bb interesting for biological warfare research. Critical US physicians suspect it is no coincidence that Borellia burgdorferi first made a name for itself in Lyme. Between the coast of Connecticut and Long Island lies the small island of Plume Island (formerly Fort Terry), which is accessible only to a few insiders and on which a high-security laboratory of the US government for biological war research is located. In August 2002, a strike by temporary workers resulted in a complete power outage and led to leaks in the vacuum safety locks. This may have caused a release of Borrelia or crystalline Mycoplasma, which were carried off to the mainland by seagulls. In any case, scientists working on behalf of the US Army had applied for a patent for the production of such mycoplasmas. The crystals can be injected intravenously, sprayed as aerosol, carried by stinging insects or spread through food and drinking water.
There is currently no vaccine approved for human use against Lyme disease, but there is one for pets. In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical group SmithKline Beecham, now Glaxo SmithKline (GSK), developed a vaccine suitable for humans called Lymerix, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the end of 1998. However, Limerix was not accepted by customers because of the widespread fear of new vaccines. GSK took the non-seller off the market after four years. The French biotech company Valneva is currently developing a successor product.