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9 things you need to know about Borrelia miyamotoi 02/18/2013

Posted by thetickthatbitme in Diagnosis, Media, TBID Facts.
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Several months ago, when the patient support group that I attend first began discussing Borrelia miyamotoi, a Google search (or Bing…whatever…) for those two odd words yeilded very little. Now, after the publishing of a few key papers in the New England Journal of Medicine, every major news outlet seems to be aware of this “new” Borrelia.

From a scientific perspective, Borrelia miyamotoi is interesting because it challenges a dichotomy that was established by researchers of tick-borne infectious diseases. When I first started reading about the Borrelia genus, I learned that Borrelia species could be sorted into two major categories: the Lyme disease-like group and the relapsing fever group. That is, Borrelia species like B. burgdorferi, B. afzelli, and B. garinii–which are genetically more similar, are carried by hard-bodied ticks, and cause the same pattern of symptoms (rash, joint pain, fatigue–were put in one group. Other species, like B. hermsii and B. parkeri–which differ genetically from these Lyme-like bacteria, are carried by soft-bodied ticks, and all cause relapsing fever symptoms–were put in the other group. One group for Lyme-like illness. Another group for relapsing fever-like illness. One group for hard-bodied ticks. Another group for soft-bodied ticks. The dichotomy is so clear that the ticks are sometimes referred to as “Lyme disease ticks” and “relapsing fever ticks.”

The funny thing about dichotomies is that they only create the illusion of two distinct categories. The reality is far more messy and characterized by shades of grey. Enter Borrelia miyamotoi. According to its genetics, it should go in the relapsing fever group, but it’s transmitted by the same hard-bodied ticks that carry Lyme disease. According to its symptoms, it falls somewhere in the middle. About 10% of people get a rash, like with Lyme disease, while others don’t. Some people get relapsing fevers, while others don’t. It’s all so very confusing!

B. miyamotoi phylogenetic tree

A Borrelia family tree (technically called a phylogenetic tree) highlighting strains of B. miyamotoi. Note the groupings of the other Borrelia. Via Platonov AE, Karan LS, Kolyasnikova NM, Makhneva NA, Toporkova MG, et al. (2011) Humans infected with relapsing fever spirochete Borrelia miyamotoi, Russia. Emerg Infect Dis 17: 1816–1823.

As usual, both the researchers and the news media seem to be trying to downplay this. Some are unwittingly obscuring the issue altogether. “Paging Dr. House: There [sic] a new tick-transmitted spirochete in town…” writes Melissa Healey of the L.A. Times. “The New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday published two reports documenting its arrival on U.S. shores.” As if the bacteria hopped on a boat from Russia, and that’s how it got here! Forget the strong possibility that it was here all along and our scientists just failed to detect it. Forget the possibility that the countless numbers of people who tested negative for Lyme disease and were denied treatment could in fact have this similar infection.

Dr. Peter Krause, lead author on the NEJM study, says (in a video for Yale News) he doesn’t think people should panic about Borrelia miyamotoi. At the same time, he admits that this is an infection that is affecting people in both the eastern and western United States–not to mention people in Europe and Asia. “We expect this disease to be found everywhere the deer tick is found,” he states. So don’t panic, but it’s everywhere.

Okay, so Dr. Krause is right when he says people shouldn’t panic, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn more about this new–or not so new, as the case may be–infection, especially since many of us could have it right now. Here are nine things I think you should know about Borrelia miyamotoi.

1. Symptoms: Borrelia miyamotoi causes symptoms of tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF), an illness often misdiagnosed as Lyme disease, or not diagnosed at all. Tick-borne relapsing fever, when left untreated, has some symptom overlap with Lyme: arthralgias, myalgias, chronic fatigue, and cognitive problems; however, it differs from Lyme disease in that most patients with TBRF get repeated episodes of fever, and they don’t get erythema chronicum migrans (EM), the “classic Lyme” bull’s-eye rash. We can guess that the long-term effects of B. miyamotoi infection are similar to those of other Borrelia infections, even if researchers are reluctant to admit it. Dr. Peter Krause, one of the authors of the study published in the January 17 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, told the L.A. Times: “This is a very new disease, but none of the patients have had this long-term [neurological] trouble or other long-term symptoms,[…] it’s possible that we just haven’t seen it yet.” Long-term neurological problems from a disease that most doctors didn’t know existed until a few months ago? I’d say it’s very possible.

2. Transmission: Borrelia miyamotoi is transmitted to humans from the bites of hard-bodied ticks. Examples of these ticks include Ixodes scapularis (deer tick), Ixodes pacificus (western blacklegged tick), Ixodes ricinus (castor bean tick), and Ixodes persulcatus (taiga tick). (The first two tick species listed are common in North America, and the second two are found in Europe and Asia.)

3. Why you’re just hearing about it now: The B. miyamotoi bacterium was discovered in ticks and mice in Japan back in 1995. (It’s named after Japanese entomologist Kenji Miyamoto, who first isolated the bacterium.) In 2001, Dr. Durland Fish discovered B. miyamotoi in ticks in Connecticut, but according to a 2011 New York Times report, he “was repeatedly refused a study grant [from NIH] until the Russians proved it caused illness.” In 2011, Russian scientists, in collaboration with the Yale team that included Krause and Fish, published research that showed that B. miyamotoi infects humans. The patients in the 2011 study were in Russia, so B. miyamotoi didn’t really come on the radar for U.S. doctors until January 2013, when a study on U.S. patients was published by Krause and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine.

4. Testing: To my knowledge, there is currently no commercially-available test for B. miyamotoi, be it PCR, IFA, or Western Blot. B. miyamotoi has been detected using assays (tests) that were developed by university researchers in order to study the bacterium. That means, unless your doctor is at Yale or another large institution, it’s not likely that he or she has access to a test for B. miyamotoi. So if you suspect you may be infected, what can you do? That brings me to my next point.

5. People with B. miyamotoi infection are likely to test negative for B. burgdorferi (Lyme disease), unless they also happen to be infected with B. burgdorferi. Doctors who are only screening patients for Lyme disease are not going to catch all of the other Borrelia infections, like B. miyamotoi.

6. Genetically, B. miyamotoi is more similar to other bacteria that cause TBRF, like Borrelia hermsii. Therefore, people with B. miyamotoi infection may test positive for B. hermsii, another relapsing fever spirochete.

7. As with any infection, B. miyamotoi infection can be more serious in the elderly and in patients with compromised immune systems. If you or a family member is denied treatment, especially in the case of severe or life-threatening symptoms (like high fever), my advice would be to go to a tertiary care center (like a university hospital) and ask to be tested for B. miyamotoi. At the very least, doctors at a research hospital should be able to do a blood smear to look for spirochetes (Borrelia). PCR and antibody tests may also be available.

8.Treatment: B. miyamotoi probably responds in a similar way to antibiotics as other Borrelia like B. hermsii and B. burgdorferi. Researchers claim that it can be treated with a few weeks of oral antibiotics, but that is probably only for mild, acute cases. My guess (as a non-medical-professional) is that B. miyamotoi is just as resilient as its Borrelia cousins and requires 4-6 weeks of daily IV antibiotics. If you’re new to this blog, you might be interested in reading about my experience being treated with IV antibiotics for B. hermsii (relapsing fever).

9. Recommended reading: To learn more about B. miyamotoi, check out the new fact sheet, which includes links to peer-reviewed studies.

What a difference a year makes! 07/14/2012

Posted by thetickthatbitme in Patient Stories, Treatment.
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A year ago yesterday was when I started my treatment for Borrelia hermsii. I left my home, my boyfriend, and my dog to stay with my parents so I could get treated with 42 days of IV antibiotics. Looking back on this time last year, so much has changed:

1. My knowledge level. I’m embarrassed to say that when I started treatment, I couldn’t even tell you if a tick has eight legs or six. (I never saw the ticks that bit me.) I knew nothing about the habitat or biology of ticks, and I didn’t know how many different diseases they can spread. I didn’t know how to spell Borrelia. Pretty much all I knew was that I was infected with a bacterium that was like Lyme but not Lyme that causes Relapsing Fever. This was strange to me because I never remembered having a fever–cold sweats, yes, but no measurable fever. I’d had IVs in my hand before when I’d been hospitalized, but I didn’t really understand what an infusion was, or that it mattered which vein a needle goes in. I had no idea what PubMed is. I’d read maybe three medical journal articles in my lifetime. Over those six weeks, I learned a lot from my doctor and other patients, and I kept learning through support group meetings and emails. Finally, I got up the energy and courage to launch this blog, and well…you know the rest.

2. My energy level. The fall of 2011 was when I should have realized something was wrong. I was student teaching in the mornings and teaching my regular classes at night. I remember what a struggle it was to get out of bed in the morning. Getting dressed was like running a marathon. I’d had back surgery the previous June, and I was in this hard brace that everyone called my turtle shell. But it wasn’t just my back that was a problem. Even with eight to ten hours sleep, by noon, I was struggling to stay awake. My 30 minute drive home on the freeway was terrifying. The only thing that kept my eyes open most days was if I was constantly chewing something, so I tried to always have snacks with me. When I got home, I’d take a 90 minute nap–which was never enough–and then I’d get up and go to work again. When the semester ended, I thought I would catch up on rest, but even only working part-time, I was constantly fatigued. I spent any time that I wasn’t working in bed. When I had to go on a business trip in March, I freaked out. How would I handle being on someone else’s schedule? How would I go six or seven hours without lying down? By June, I was freed from back braces, and my spine had healed, but I still felt awful. And I felt guilty. How had I become this lazy, unmotivated person who spends all her time in bed? A year later, I have my life back. I work two jobs, plus freelance work. I cook dinner for Boyfriend and me several nights a week, do all the grocery shopping, and keep the house clean. I walk my dog and ride my bike. I go shopping and to the movies with friends, drive long distances, and even occasionally babysit. Before, I only had the energy to do one or two of these things per day. I was a spoonie with a very low spoon limit. If I cleaned the house, that was it for the day. If I went to the store, I probably wouldn’t have the energy to cook the food I’d bought. If I taught a 3 hour class, I would come home and sleep the rest of the day. All of this I tried to conceal from my family and friends. I tried to be fine because there was no explanation for why I wasn’t.

spoon chasing

Spoon chasing. (Image via unfocusedcreativity.blogspot.com)

Looking at how much better I am now makes me realize how sick I was. Yesterday, I had a two-hour morning conference call, after which I worked on the computer for another hour. Then I ate lunch and went to the grocery store. When I got back, I cleaned out the fridge, put the groceries away, and then did a thorough de-clutter and clean of the entire house. I read a chapter in my book, took a shower, and went out to dinner with Boyfriend. All that activity would never have fit into one day when I was sick. I was up again this morning at 8:00, feeling rested.

Weather-style pain scale.

Weather-style pain scale. (Image via fibroofoz.blogspot.com)

3. My pain level. I was on strong prescription painkillers for a year and a half, starting in June 2010 after my surgery. Clearly, I didn’t get off them when I was supposed to, 6-9 months post-surgery. That’s because I didn’t just have back pain. It was in my hips, neck, and shoulders, too. The pain didn’t completely go away right after treatment. It’s been a slow progression. In the fall, I was able to wean myself off painkillers and just use heating pads when my back or joints bothered me. We know from the research that reactive arthritis may simply be part of the package for some patients with treated Borrelia infections. This is my framework for understanding some of my continuing aches and pains. For me, low-impact exercise, comfortable shoes, heating pads, and a memory foam mattress pad help a great deal. Whereas before my daily pain level rarely dropped below a four, even with drugs, now I’m at a one or a two most days, and I’m drug-free, aside from very rarely taking Advil.

What brain fog does to reading a book.

What brain fog does to reading a book. (Image via a-b-martin.blogspot.com)

4. My cognitive level. The ability to think, speak, and write clearly is essential to my livelihood. Having a Borrelia infection plunged me into what many people describe as a “brain fog.” For more than a year, I was sort of drifting through life, not able to think very clearly about anything. It came on gradually, and after my surgery, it got worse, which I attributed to the pain and the painkillers. Now I’ve met enough fellow patients that I see the pattern. I understand how this infection clouded my cognition. One of the reasons I didn’t start writing this blog while I was getting treated was that I couldn’t focus well enough. Even post-treatment, it took me a few months to start feeling sharp again. I really noticed the change this past semester when teaching got easier. I was able to learn the names of all my students within the first three weeks–which hadn’t happened the previous four semesters. My focus and mental endurance were so much better, as was my time management during class. I felt sort of like I’d woken up from a long sleep. The time in my life when I was very sick seems blurry. Now, not only do I have the energy to do more, but I have much better concentration. I can even go back and look at things I wrote two years ago and see the difference in sentence structure. All I can say is it’s good to be “back.”

What I’m doing to stay well, one year out:


(Image via Wikipedia. Credit: Ren West)

1. Eating my eggs. You wouldn’t believe how “off” I feel if I go a day without an egg. That’s probably because my neurologically-damaged body likes choline, and eggs are full of it. I also find myself craving green vegetables. In fact, whenever friends ask me where I want to eat, I usually say, “Anywhere with good veggies.” I know there are many diets out there that are designed to help people with Borrelia infections avoid inflammation and other problems, and many of those recommend avoiding meat, dairy, gluten, and sugar. Personally, I’m not really cut out for that. I’m not the kind of person who can say, “I’m not going to eat X” when X is something that I really like, like sourdough bread, or milk, or chocolate. That’s not to knock the vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, and/or sugar-free diets. I recognize that they do work for some people. However, I’m pretty sure that my body needs both meat and sugar to function normally, so I’ve always been opposed to giving up those. Other than being lactose-intolerant, I have no problems with dairy, and I don’t have more pain when I drink my Lactaid milk than on days when I don’t, so I’m not so concerned with the inflammation factor there. I seem to tolerate gluten pretty well, but I do try to limit my grains, as they’re not the best source of choline. No one gets between me and my egg sandwiches, though.

2. Staying active. I spent a large percentage of a year in bed, and going back there is very tempting at times, especially since during that time I developed a large collection of movies and TV shows, and my bed is VERY comfortable. Because I used to do most things from bed, I’m just now getting used to LIVING in my living room, WORKING in the office, and SLEEPING in my bedroom. (In fact, I’m breaking this rule now, typing the first draft of this from bed, but it’s a Saturday, and I’ve been working all week, so I don’t feel bad.) For me, staying active means not only “working out” (by walking the dog, riding my bike, and playing Dance Central on Xbox) but “getting stuff done.” I used to put off doing things and tell myself, “I’ll do it when I’m not so tired, or when I’m in less pain.” Now I don’t have those excuses, and it’s much less burdensome to get things done right away. Procrastination used to be a form of self-preservation. Now it’s a habit I have to work to break.

3. Preventing re-infection. After what I’ve been through, the last thing I want is another tick-borne infection, so I make sure that both my dog and I stay out of high risk areas for ticks. When we walk, we stay on the sidewalk. Boyfriend and I keep the yard clean–which is not too difficult since our backyard is mostly concrete. We treat Lucy monthly for fleas and ticks, and I’m always spraying that Cedarcide. I’ve decided not to do any hiking or camping for a while. When I want to enjoy the outdoors, I ride my bike or go to the beach.

4. Staying current on my tests. I get my blood drawn every 3 months so my doctor can check my antibody titer. My doctor said if I have a four-fold rise, then we’ll need to consider re-treatment. So far, I’ve been okay, but I want to be vigilant. I don’t want to get re-infected and not know about it.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend!

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