How Climate Change is Spreading Lyme Disease

TickPhoto: kafka4prez

Unless you have been living under a rock, the chances are good that you have heard about Lyme disease. You know, that nasty, tick-born illness that might make you achy and feverish, might make you tired, could paralyze your muscles, give you a stiff neck or alter your behavior and heart rhythms. The disease is caused by a bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, and it was first discovered in Old Lyme, Connecticut, giving the disease its name.

The tick picks up the bacteria by first biting an infected deer or mouse. If the tick then finds another host (you!) and manages to stay on long enough to transmit it to you (24-48 hours) you may develop the classical bulls-eye rash pictured below. If so, you would likely rush to the doctor, get on a course of antibiotics and be just fine. But some people never know that they have been bitten and never develop a rash, which is when the disease is at its worst.

bullseyePhoto: wikipedia

In more bad news, it looks like global climate change is delivering a one-two punch that may increase the number of people infected by the disease. There is first the fact that new areas of the globe are suitable for the disease vectors – primarily the ticks. With warmer winter temperatures in particular, the area where ticks are found is expanding northward. In addition, there is some evidence showing that the particular ways in which warming patterns occur may lead to increased virulence of the strains of bacteria, meaning a worse case for the unfortunate recipient of the bite.

In all of this doom and gloom, hope comes from an unlikely corner.

Western fence lizardPhoto: wikipedia

This is the western fence lizard and if you are lucky enough to live where these animals thrive, your risk of Lyme disease goes way down. Remember that tick that bit the infected mouse? If that tick goes on to bite a fence lizard, a protein in the lizard’s blood will kill off the bacteria remaining in the tick’s belly.

So next time you see a blue-belly (another name for the lovely fence lizard), tip your hat at it and say, “Thanks!”