by Dr. Bill Rawls
Lyme disease has long been blamed on one bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. Find out why it’s not that simple, and learn the other possible causes of Lyme.
Question: What causes Lyme disease?
That’s a big question. Most people would say the answer is the microbe Borrelia burgdorferi. This is the microbe that was discovered in the original Lyme patients from Lyme, Connecticut, back in the 70s. But now we know that there are at least 12 different species of borrelia worldwide that can cause Lyme disease and Lyme disease–like syndromes.
We know that it’s not just one microbe — it’s a whole spectrum of microbes. And then, when you start looking at the difference between acute Lyme disease, which is an infection with borrelia, compared to chronic Lyme disease, which is what most people are experiencing, then you start looking at the coinfections. There are mycoplasma, bartonella, babesia, and all of these other microbes that can be spread by ticks or are present when there is Lyme disease.
It’s not ever just one microbe. There are always other microbes involved, and if you look at these microbes (mycoplasma, bartonella, babesia) independently, you see that they can cause very, very similar symptoms to Lyme disease. Technically, somebody could have one of these other microbes or several of these other microbes, not have borrelia, and have all of the symptoms of Lyme disease.
But the question really goes back to the original studies of Lyme disease. Lyme disease was discovered back in 1976 in Lyme, Connecticut. The city was growing, people were moving out into wooded suburbs, and they started getting tick bites. A group of children and adults got an acute febrile illness and became sick. They gathered blood specimens, sent them off, and a researcher by the name of Willy Burgdorfer analyzed these specimens.
He didn’t find just one microbe, he found a number of microbes. But he had to pick one to ask, “What is this coming from?” In his research, he found this microbe, a form of borrelia, that ended up taking his name — Borrelia burgdorferi — and that’s what he defined as the microbe that caused the condition that occurred in Lyme. We’ve identified that microbe with this disease ever since.
Very interestingly, toward the end of his life, Dr. Burgdorfer wrote about the possibility that maybe that microbe wasn’t the complete cause, because he also found a species of rickettsia in those samples. Toward the end of his life he was questioning whether [the cause of Lyme] was rickettsia or borrelia.
We know that Rickettsia is more apt to cause an acute febrile illness than borrelia is. Even today, we’re not quite sure [of Lyme’s cause]. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s never a single microbe. Ticks can carry hundreds of microbes. When you’re trying to answer that question — “What causes Lyme disease?” — it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. We know microbes are involved, we know certain kinds of microbes that we define as stealth microbes are involved, but I don’t ever look at Lyme disease as an infection with a single microbe.