Lyme Disease Treatment | One Woman's Quest for Answers
Stafford gestures to his wall of filing cabinets: “Ticks, Lyme disease — I’ve been in it 19 years. The Polly Murray thing happened in the mid-’70s. Allen Steere published his first paper in 1977, and the organism itself was discovered in 1982. After that, things proceeded rapidly.” He’s telling me about the cause of the disease: Borrelia burgdorferi, the corkscrew-shaped bacterium that spirals its way into humans from the mouths of ticks.
The mustachioed Stafford has a calm, precise demeanor, and with pens and eyeglasses case stuffed into his shirt pocket, is the very picture of a dedicated scientist. He continues: “At that time, the only place in the country you could be tested for Lyme was right here. Dr. Louis Magnarelli developed the test.”
Even as we talk, researchers in a lab near Stafford’s office are opening up envelopes and removing ticks mailed to them for analysis. Some 6,000 ticks arrive here each year. Scientists grind them up and test them for the spirochete bacterium that has bored its way into hundreds of thousands of Americans to date, and even deeper into their consciousness.
Stafford is the author of the Tick Management Handbook, a booklet that is distributed throughout southern Connecticut. (It’s also available online at ct.gov/caes/site/default.asp.) In it, he discusses tick biology, tick-borne illnesses (Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, encephalitis, tularemia, Lyme disease), prevention, chemical control, and landscaping methods to reduce the Ixodes population — in part by managing the numbers of deer, white-footed mice, and chipmunks (all principal hosts of disease-bearing ticks) on one’s property — and Lyme disease treatment.
“It’s not going away,” he says confidently. He shows me the CDC’s incidence map, noting how the disease has spread from those early days in Lyme — the concentrations now radiating like a dark stain all the way out into the Northeast. Indeed, 49 states in the Union have now reported cases. There are a number of places where Stafford and his researchers have been collecting ticks for many years, including Polly Murray’s backyard.
“How does Lyme spread?” I ask.
He shrugs: “Migrating birds. There’s no sure way to know. The movement of deer and the way people travel to tick-infested areas with their pets — all can be factors. But it’s widely believed that birds played a role in a lot of this.” He shows me the tick’s life cycle, which involves at least four critical stages. “It’s like a mechanism that needs all the parts to function,” he explains.
Having thought of the tick as an indestructible machine, I suddenly think it’s a miracle that any tick survives with so many bridges to cross until it reaches the final stage on the back of a moving deer. “What about reducing the number of deer?” I ask.
“We’ve been wrestling with that for a number of years,” Stafford replies. “We’ve done studies, and we’ve found that it can help substantially. But people get kind of exercised about hunting deer.”
“Imagine virtually eliminating Lyme in five years! I’ve been living in the epicenter of the Lyme world for four years already. We could be almost done by now.”
In her clipped British accent, Georgina Scholl, M.D., is talking about her passion: killing deer to save people. Slender, auburn-haired, dressed in linen, she’s the vice chair of the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, a group that provides residents with a “deer hotline” and information on hired hunters. These towns, which suffer the highest incidence of Lyme disease, are trying everything they can to contain this epidemic.
Outside the French doors of her kitchen in Redding, Georgina looks out on a wildflower meadow that slopes gently toward the woods. The turquoise waters of the family’s pool ripple in the breeze. This bucolic scene, once their paradise, is now a kind of no-man’s-land for her family — what she calls “no child left outside.”
“We moved here to be in the country,” she explains. “We built a treehouse for our sons at the edge of the field, and that of course is where the ticks are. And then we found out about Lyme. We had no idea.” Georgina is a neurologist; her husband is an immunologist. “The problem is, we’ve got too many deer,” she adds. “Why would anyone tolerate a problem that’s destroying the woodlands, causing fatal car accidents, and spreading disease?”
Last summer, Georgina and her husband took a trip to Maine and stayed on Monhegan Island, where there are few ticks. “It was wonderful to be somewhere where they weren’t,” she notes. But it wasn’t always so.
On Monhegan Island, a little rock of a place 10 miles out in the ocean off the coast of Maine, Peter Rand, M.D., and his band of fellow sleuths at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute have spent almost 20 years studying the relationships among deer, rats, and ticks, and how their population levels correlate with the spread of Lyme disease. “Oh, I’d love to write a book about all this,” says Rand, a handsome man in his 70s, with a full head of white hair and a patrician bearing. From his office in South Portland, he loves to tell the story, an adventurous tale of trips to the island on the high seas, collecting ticks in the snow, and late-night sessions around a roaring fire, the team talking about the future of their research. “The beauty of the island was that it was contained,” Rand explains. A scientist’s dream.