Any quick research about Lyme Disease will indicate it was first identified and named in 1982 around Lyme, CT. What many people don’t know is that there was evidence of the disease prior to 1982. How long before? A recent Medscape article from WebMD reports descriptions of the skin manifestations of Lyme Disease occurred as early as 1883 in Europe. In that year the German scientist, Alfred Buchwalk, described a rash found in 30% of today’s Lyme Disease victims, erythema migranes, or bulls-eye rash.
The familiar bulls-eye rash that Dr. Allen Steere from Yale noticed in patients helped him look at ticks as a vector for this disease in the US, based on the previous European epidemiological studies. In the 1920’s Garin and Bujadoux in Germany described the bulls-eye rash following a tick bite in a patient. This and other later studies lead Dr. Steere to believe ticks were a possible vector here in the US as well. It was Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, an entomologist, who first identified the bacteria in ticks that are responsible for Lyme Disease, B burgdorferi. In Europe, two different bacteria that are carried by ticks are responsible for their occurrences. The one thing that was clear to researchers on both sides of the Atlantic was that ticks were the common vector in these very similar diseases.
In a story last year about one of our oldest relatives, National Geographic published an interesting finding about Lyme Disease. The story reports that Lyme Disease may have been afflicting our ancestors 5,300 years ago. Scientists have been studying the DNA of one of our oldest ancestors, Ötzi, for some time. Ötzi is an ice mummy found in 1991, and scientists believe he “likely had Lyme Disease”, based on their findings.
The recent Medscape article states that the B burgdorferi bacteria had been found in tick specimens collected in the 1940s on eastern Long Island. It wasn’t until tick population grew, along with the expansion of the deer population, that the disease became more common in the US. It was during the 1940s that game laws were passed protecting deer and other wildlife in the US, due to the near extinction of the deer populations in the East.
We can’t say for sure how long Lyme Disease has been with us. Strong evidence in scientific journals and in stories like the one from National Geographic leads us to believe it has been here quite a while. Perhaps it was the increase in deer populations, small woodlots near homes and human expansion into former wildlife habitat that caused an increase in tick populations and Lyme Disease. Ticks thrive best in suburban and semi-rural environments with an abundance of deer. If you live in such an environment, perhaps you should consider an effective barrier treatment to reduce your exposure to tick-borne diseases.