There is an odd, fascinating beauty about them, these primitive, spiral-shaped forms we would never see at all if they were not magnified 50 to 60 thousand times. They are borrelia burgdorferi, the germs that cause Lyme disease.
Borrelia burgdorferi has an ancient lineage, far older than ours, and despite all the vaccines and antibiotics we devise, it has a more promising future. It preceded people and will doubtless survive us. For that reason alone it deserves respectful biographers.
Arno Karlen, a New York psychoanalyst and student of biomedical history has written "Biography of a Germ" about borrelia burgdorferi. Its story helps to answer the question, how come so many strange new diseases seem to be appearing out of nowhere?
The list of names include seoul hantavirus, dengue hemorrhagic fever, Argentine hemorrhagic fever, kyasanur forest disease, chikungunya, human babesiosis and more.
They keep coming at us like the list of songs on one of those greatest hits CDs for sale on late night TV. Latest to arrive is a new strain of something called an arenavirus that has just made its appearance in the US killing three people in California.
Last summer, it was the West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. It put New York City in a panic. Public health officials realized that hundreds of birds dropping out of the sky and dying had the same disease as a growing number of people reporting mysterious flu-like symptoms including high fevers and even paralysis. Sixty-two people were hospitalized and seven people died.
The city began extensive insecticide spraying, hoping to contain the disease. Scientists tried to figure out how the West Nile virus got here, and they couldn't help but asking a bigger question, will it return? The answer, we now know, is yes.
West Nile Virus and Beyond
Ward Stone, New York State's wildlife pathologist sees the disease spreading as far and as fast as birds fly. Stone believes it is only a matter of time before West Nile is all over the continent.
Stone and his staff are swamped. Every couple of hours the UPS truck shows up at door. Stone's lab outside Albany loaded with picnic coolers containing dead birds, mostly crows and blue jays, dead birds are now arriving at a rate of 500 plus a day.
Each time West Nle is the cause of death, each time another bird species is affected, stone becomes more alarmed. He worries the bald eagle, our national symbol, could be wiped out, and even though only 3 people have been diagnosed with the disease so far this summer, he is convinced, more will die.
"I think there's a lot to this virus," says Stone. "Even if West Nile didn't kill people at all, we should have great national concern because of what it's doing to our birds, even if it didn't do anything to people. But it does something to people, and it's a warning to us."
Scientists speculate that the West Nile virus reached the US by airplane, thanks to a stowaway moquito with the virus, or even an infected passenger.
Every year more than two million people fly into New York from places where West Nile is found. "We have sped up the means of travel," says Arno Karlen. "Look, before you had modern transport, no epidemic could move faster than a person could walk."
Ask Arno Karlen why there are so many new, scary diseases, and he'll tell you that it's how we live. It's what happens when we mess with mother-nature, disturbing the live-and-let-live truce a germ and the animal occupy. They have worked out over tens of thousands of years.
"Because of our technology, or a change in our life style, now suddenly we're exposed to it," says Karlen. "And it becomes a human epidemic. Also, because it's new to us, we don't have defenses. When any host meets a germ that it isn't accustomed to, the result is really an acute infection and that's what we get with Lyme disease, borrelia burgdorferi."
That's why a deer that'carrying Lyme disease won't get sick but you probably will.
As if there weren't enough illnesses to fill up the medical books, a new one has just popped up in a little town in the northeast that has given its name to the illness. Lyme, Connecticut, is the leafy, wooded community where it was identified in 1976.
Last year, some 16,000 cases of Lyme disease were diagnosed in the US, and the number keeps going up. Block Island, a busy summer resort off the coast of Rhode Island is one of the nation's Lyme disease hot spots, and a classic example of how messing with mother-nature can make people sick. It began when deer were brought to the island in 1967, because residents believed hunting would be good for the economy.
Soon after Dr. Peter Brassard arrived in the mid 80's, and he started seeing patients with what turned out to be Lyme disease. "It was a gold mine of research," says Brassard. "Look, I got an island with a moat around it, I was the only doctor, and they couldn't go anywhere else which you never took advantage of except to say that you got to see all the cases."
Block Island proved to be the perfect incubator. Posters caution hikers to check for the tiny deer tick, no bigger than a poppy seed, that spreads the disease.
The majority of Block Islanders now want to get rid of most if not all of the Island's deer. Town council members are constantly reminded of campaign promises to undo what was done by bringing deer to the Island.
"When you change an Eco-system, you are going to have more changes than you anticipate, and be ready for surprises," says Karlen.
Another Unknown Virus Lurking?
Surprises like Lyme disease, West Nile virus, which can overtake us faster than modern medicine can cope, and we remain vulnerable.
The ability to cure or prevent many diseases has provoked fantasies of life without infection, a glistening sterile future from which microbes had vanished. But it was always absurd to think that we coud or should keep germs out of our lives.
"One thing lingers on the horizon, and it's nasty," says Karlen. "There are good reasons to expect that somewhere in the vaguely foreseeable future, whether it's 10 or 50 or 100 years, we are very possibly going to have one enormous and very lethal epidemic. It's very possible that it will be a germ that we don't even know yet, but it's out there, and it hasn't met us yet."
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