Lyme Disease in Iceman and Birds

November 08, 2011

Lyme Disease in Iceman and Birds 

 Reference:Science News, Nov 1, 2011 and Lyme Disease Annual Meeting, Toronto 2011 

 Iceman, or Otzi, had a bad day.  He had just gotten away from his chasers and stopped at the very top of the pass on the border of what is now Italy and Austria in 3200 BC.  He had made it all the way to the top of the mountain and was now stopping for some lunch of ibex meat when a hidden assailant shot him in the back with an arrow.  He likely died quickly, particularly after the blow to the back of his head dispatched him.  His assailant pulled out the arrow shaft but left everything else behind, leaving us Europe’s oldest mummy, frozen in the snow to examine 5300 years later.  

When an autopsy was done this year and he was briefly thawed, samples showed that he had Lyme disease in addition to everything else.   So, like tuberculosis, Lyme has been around a while.  It makes an illness that may not kill you, but sure slows you down until something else does. Where do we get Lyme disease from?  We thought it was just from ticks carried by deer.  That’s the conventional thought.  If you don’t have deer in your neighborhood, you are safe, right?  Actually, wrong.  

In a paper presented at the International Lyme Conference in Toronto last month,  John Scott presented a paper on the incidence of Lyme carrying ticks on birds in Canada.  His paper caught my ear.  200 songbirds that spend a fair amount of time on the ground were captured across Canada over the last three years with mist nets or from bird strikes against city buildings.  The birds were then examined for the presence of ticks.  The average bird carried two ticks, with one bird having 18.  And when the 17 different kinds of ticks were examined, 29% of them were found to have B. burgdorferi in them.  (That’s the Lyme bacteria)  These birds migrate up into Canada from their winter homes.  They cross virtually every state in the US.  That means the average bird at your bird feeder may be pretty much the same, and have about a  30-50% chance of carrying the Lyme bacteria in a tick.  

Hmmm. What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?  How about something that feels like a cold that doesn’t go away, and then fatigue and malaise that doesn’t go away.  Any new symptoms that wax and wane, you might think of Lyme.   You don’t need to have a rash or a tick bite, as less than 50% of folks who have Lyme do.  And the traditional Western Blot test may not be very accurate.  The controversy about Lyme is unbelievable because there are those who believe you can cure Lyme with 30 days of antibiotic, and those who see patients who don’t get better until treated for Lyme for 1-2 years.   I’ve heard too many stories from credible sources to believe the 30 day theory. 

 WWW.  What Will Work for Me?  I have a bird feeder and feed birds all winter.  I will continue to do so.  And I will look for ticks until we get a good hard frost when the risk of transmission seems to fall off.  One thing winter is good for.


Pop Quiz

1. How long do we have evidence of Lyme disease being in humans? Answer: Over 5000 years in Otzi, the Iceman found mummified in a glacier in Italy.

2. Lyme disease is exclusively passed on in ticks carried by deer. T or F. Answer: False. Some 30-40% of birds in Canada have Lyme disease-infected ticks.

3. Can you get Lyme disease from your bird feeder? Answer: Sure sounds plausible.

Column written by John Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI 53045