Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Chronic Lyme disease is a proposed syndrome that sufferers think is brought on by a bacterial infection from a tick bite. Many doctors and researchers don’t believe in this syndrome, which lasts much longer than your run-of-the-mill Lyme disease infection. The CDC, NIAID, and leading medical professionals agree that the syndrome doesn’t exist. There are others within the scientific community, and especially outside of it, that debate these experts. But now that debate has risen to the political sphere as well, as presidential candidate Mitt Romney has taken up a position on the issue: He believes that the disease exists and he wants people of Virginia to have access to a dangerous (and proven ineffective) treatment for, as he said in a political mailer.
Lyme disease has been seen all over the country, and about 10 per cent of the population has had it, though this varies by state and the disease is still spreading. In Virginia, the rate is around 9 per cent, and in Massachusetts it’s over 20 per cent. The disease is transmitted by tick bites, leaves a characteristic red “target” rash around the bite, and causes fever, headache and fatigue in those infected. It’s diagnosed using a test for the bacteria that causes the disease, and treated with antibiotics for up to a month to rid the body of them.
People claiming to suffer from chronic Lyme disease continue to show symptoms after this treatment course, though the symptoms are vague and different for everyone. Many suffers think that prolonged antibiotic use could cure them, even though it has proven to be no more effective than placebo.
In a mailer sent to Virgina voters last week, Romney promised the following:
Ensure that government agencies have an open line of communication and work with patients, researchers, doctors, and businesses in an objective, comprehensive manner.
Work with federal and state health agencies to support Lyme Disease awareness efforts to help prevent further spread of the disease.
Encourage increased options for the treatment of Lyme Disease and provide local physicians with protection from lawsuits to ensure they can treat the disease with the aggressive antibiotics that are required.
Politicians playing doctor
This endorsement seems to have stemmed from a meeting earlier this month with Virgina conservative politician Michael Farris, who believes in Chronic Lyme disease, and use of long-term antibiotics as a treatment, Thinkprogress reports:
Farris “claims that his wife is a chronic Lyme sufferer as are all his seven children.”
Farris, who has no medical training, was invited to speak with Romney on his campaign bus a couple of weeks ago. Farris said that he and Romney “talked about Lyme disease. It was cordial and encouraging.” Here’s a photo of the meeting from Romney’s Facebook page:
The Romney flier advocates providing “local physicians with protection from lawsuits to ensure they can treat the disease with the aggressive antibiotics that are required.” Farris’ wife receives treatment from “Dr. Joseph Jemsek, who moved his practice to Washington, D.C., after losing his medical licence in North Carolina for treating patients with long-term antibiotics.”
While there’s no doubt that people suffering from what they think is chronic Lyme disease are probably ill, it could be any of several other disorders that could be causing their cadre of symptoms. Worse yet, it could be untreated depression causing the symptoms, as Laura Helmuth reports in Slate in this personal story:
A friend of one of my brothers had been suffering for years from headaches, fatigue, a sense of despair, a belief that she wasn’t worthy of her job or her boyfriend. She was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and was treated with antibiotics, which were ineffective. What she wasn’t treated for, and could have been, was severe depression. She killed herself.
The symptoms of chronic Lyme disease could also be caused by an auto-immune reaction to the infection, or lasting damage from the bacterial invasion. Either way, these symptoms aren’t helped by additional long-term antibiotic treatment, which has side effects and dangers of its own.
Politicians taking sides in such a medical debate is inappropriate, and in my opinion distracts from the real issues: Finding the cause of these symptoms that are commonly attributed to chronic Lyme disease. What doesn’t help is endorsement of dangerous and ineffective treatments by politicians.
Perhaps instead of endorsing quack treatments, Romney should pledge to funnel money into research organisations that could find the actual cause of this disease, and he could help stop its spread by addressing the causes of global climate change, the main reason the disease has reached so far and wide and continues to spread.
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