Lyme disease is an affliction that frustrates both patients and doctors. Approximately 329,000 Americans are infected every year, through bites from ticks that carry the Borrelia bacteria. Symptoms include a characteristic “bullseye” rash, headache, fever and fatigue. Most people get better after treatment with a brief course of antibiotics, but some percentage of sufferers continue to experience symptoms for months, or even years. Now researchers think a second bacterium may also play a role in the disease.
When people experience extended symptoms, their condition is called “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” (PTLDS) or chronic Lyme disease. Patients are often frustrated because there is a difference of opinion among doctors as to whether chronic Lyme exists, and how to treat it. Doctors who do recognize the condition are puzzled as to why some patients recover quickly and others are much more acutely affected.
Now some long-buried research notes have come to light, written by the scientist who originally identified Borrelia as the cause of Lyme disease. These notes suggest there may be a secondary Lyme bacteria, and this could be the cause of the difference in impact on different patients.
In the late 1970s, a year and a half before Borrelia bacteria was identified as the cause of Lyme, tick expert Willy Burgdorfer believed he had found the cause: a tick-borne bacterium call the “Swiss Agent,” now called Rickettsia helvetica.
However, after further research Burgdorfer became convinced the cause was Borrelia, and in 1982 he published a groundbreaking paper in Science. His findings provide the foundation for scientific understanding of Lyme disease.
After Burgdorfer died in 2014, the medical journalism site STAT undertook a review of the archives of his work, including letters, lab notes, and blood test results. These suggested Burgdorfer retained in interest in the Swiss Agent bacterium and its potential role in Lyme.
Some early handwritten drafts of Burgdorfer’s seminal Science paper did contain allusions to the Swiss Agent Bacteria, but they did not make it into the final version. He also discussed the issue in a letter to a colleague.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began interested, and is now using molecular techniques to study 30,000 samples from people with tick-borne illnesses. They are looking for evidence of the Swiss Agent bacteria, but the work will take several years until it is completed.
Writing for STAT, Charles Piller explains:
While the evidence is hardly conclusive, patients and doctors might be mistaking under-the-radar Swiss Agent infections for Lyme, the infectious disease specialists said. Or the bacteria could be co-infecting some Lyme patients, exacerbating symptoms and complicating their treatment – and even stoking a bitter debate about whether Lyme often becomes a persistent and serious illness.
Experts have reported there is evidence in Europe that Lyme and Rickettsia helvetica have co-infected patients there. Rickettsia helvetica is easily contained by antibiotics. If left untreated, however, the bacterium does cause serious and often persistent symptoms such as fatigue, facial paralysis, muscle weakness and severe headaches.
Experts are waiting expectantly for the results of the CDC ongoing research. The outcome is critical to learning why some people respond to treatment for Lyme, while others do not. If there are two different bacteria involved, the chronic cases may be experiencing a continuation of symptoms from the Swiss Agent.