The feeding habits of ticks and the swimming abilities of deer were of little concern to the residents of Old Lyme, Connecticut, in July 1975. This quaint New England town is, for the most part, an upper-crust community with tree-lined streets and fine colonial and Federal-style homes. As one of America's oldest towns, founded by English Puritans, Old Lyme was enjoying its tricentennial as the nation prepared for a bicentennial. But a strange set of occurrences that year would forever change its reputation from a warm, charming enclave to a place of fear and despair.
Old Lyme, nestled on the banks of the Connecticut River, sits just a shade north of the Long Island Sound. The midsummer weather in 1975 was typical for coastal Connecticut -- hot, sticky, and humid. As little ones frolicked in the sun, ignoring the blistering heat, and grown-ups sought refuge on their porches by night, grateful for a balmy summer breeze, Polly Murray and Judith Mensch noticed something unusual about their children. Seemingly out of nowhere, they were showing signs of strange physical and mental ailments. Alarmed, the two mothers quickly phoned their neighbors, who were observing strikingly similar conditions in their own children. Many of the kids in the neighborhood -- and some adults -- were suffering from the same skin rashes, throbbing headaches, and painful swollen joints.
Together, Polly and Judith brought their concerns to the Connecticut Department of Health, which immediately appointed physicians from Yale University to investigate. Initially, the doctors misdiagnosed thirty-nine children and twelve adults with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition they named "Lyme arthritis," after the town where the strange outbreak occurred. Two years later, scientists linked Lyme arthritis to the bite of a deer tick. And in 1981, Dr. Wally Burgdorfer, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, discovered a thin spiral bacteria -- in technical terms, a spirochete -- immersed in the fluid of a deer tick. He proved that the new spirochete was to blame -- not for a Lyme arthritis, but for an entirely new ailment: Lyme disease.
Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb), named in honor of its discoverer, attacks humans in a number of ways, which is one reason why it remains difficult to diagnose. Characterized by symptoms such as facial paralysis and stiff swelling in the neck and joints, Bb also causes maladies like meningitis and encephalitisboth swellings of the brainand cardiac problems, including atrioventricular block, myopericarditis, and cardiomegaly. Because Bb attacks the body's central nervous system, additional symptoms of Lyme disease include acute headaches, general fatigue, fever, moodiness, and depression.
That brief pinch the nuclear power plant trooper felt on his ankle that afternoon was the bite of an enemy no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. The chance of finding something that size, even had it attached to his exposed forearm, was pretty slim. The foe was either a eight-legged nymph deer tick or a Lone Star tick, swelling up to one hundred times its size with his blood. And while it sipped away, the tick regurgitated hundreds of spiral-shaped Bb bacteria into the victim's blood.
The tick is the perfect germ vector, which is why it has long been fancied as a germ weapon by early biowarriors from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan to the Soviet Union and the United States. Fixing its target by sensing exhaled carbon dioxide, the creature grabs onto a mammal's skin with its legs and digs in with its mouth hooks. The tick secretes saliva that helps glue it to its host, making it difficult to separate. A special hormone in the tick counteracts antibodies sent by the host to fight it off, and the crafty tick secretes an anti-inflammatory to prevent itchingso the host hardly knows it's there.
From Lab 257 by Michael C. Carroll. Copyright 2004 by Michael C. Carroll. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
This excerpt starts at page 3 and ends on page 9 of the hardcover edition.
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