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TRUE BELIEVERS, RESEARCHERS FIGHT OVER TICKS, LYME DISEASE
The Lyme disease battle: True believers and researchers face off over ticks and symptoms

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THINKSTOCK.COM
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Date published: 11/24/2013

ATLANTA

--There is a subculture in America you may know little about. Its members are haunted by a slender, twisting, tick-borne germ known as Borrelia burgdorferi, the microbe responsible for Lyme disease, and they are trying desperately to warn us that we are all at risk of contracting a debilitating, chronic illness characterized by joint pain, fatigue, mood disorders and a long list of other symptoms.

Arrayed against these true believers are most of the mainstream scientists who study B. burgdorferi. Although they acknowledge that Lyme disease is a genuine illness that humans can get from being bitten by infected ticks, and that those who are not treated promptly can develop worse symptoms, they don't believe that infection leads to a chronic condition. The thousands of people who attribute their symptoms to "chronic Lyme disease" are simply misguided, many researchers believe.

As the website of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases puts it, "While the term is sometimes used to describe illness in patients with Lyme disease, in many occasions it has been used to describe symptoms in people who have no evidence of a current or past infection."

Finding common ground between the two camps is difficult. But recently, the groups trying to warn about Lyme disease claimed a victory when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it had underestimated Lyme's prevalence in the United States by a factor of 10. Instead of an estimated 30,000 cases, the CDC now estimates 300,000 cases a year.

WHERE DOES IT OCCUR?

But the agency didn't budge on another area of raging dispute: where the disease occurs. As the CDC's website puts it, "This disease does not occur nationwide and is concentrated heavily in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

The South, where I live, is one of the areas where researchers insist Lyme disease does not occur. I have no interest in entering the intensely emotional debate about whether "chronic Lyme" exists. But, for a magazine article I recently wrote, I spent a good deal of time trying to answer a single question: Does Lyme disease, or another, similar borreliosis, exist in the South?


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TRUE BELIEVERS, RESEARCHERS FIGHT OVER TICKS, LYME DISEASE

Wendy Orent is the author of "Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease" and the e-book "Ticked: The Battle Over Lyme Disease in the South." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.