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Biological Chemistry

Lyme Disease Dilemma

September 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 35

Thank you for the series of articles on Lyme disease. I live in New Jersey and have suffered not only from Lyme disease but also from a lack of concern by the health care industry. A 1998 study found that 43 of 100 ticks collected in western New Jersey carried the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. If you are bitten by a tick in New Jersey or other endemic regions, chances are high that you will be exposed to Lyme disease.

Without a definitive test for the disease, many cases go untreated. “Diagnosing Ancient Disease” notes that paleomicrobiologists were able to determine that the 5,300-year-old Tyrolean iceman suffered from Lyme disease (C&EN, May 20, page 32). But “Taking Aim at Lyme Disease” states, “The current test [for Lyme disease] has many shortfalls” (C&EN, June 24, page 10; see C&EN, July 1, following page 56).

The current test relies on measuring the level of antibodies humans produce in response to exposure to the Lyme organism. However, if the body’s immune response is weak, not only are the antibodies not produced in detectable levels, but the disease’s characteristic bull’s-eye rash does not form, making diagnosis and treatment very difficult. Most insurance companies are not willing to pay for treatment without a definitive diagnosis.

The major drug companies have little incentive to develop vaccines or better tests for Lyme disease. As the June 24 article points out, these are high-risk, low-profit ventures. Because arthritis is an outcome of delayed treatment of Lyme disease, sales of prescription drugs for arthritis pain would fall if the prevention and treatment of Lyme disease improved. I am not blaming the drug companies—they are acting in the best interests of their shareholders.

This is where the U.S. government has to step in and support more research into the prevention and detection of Lyme disease. Lyme disease research is severely underfunded when compared with other less prevalent diseases.

Stephen J. McGovern
Mantua, N.J.



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