Nursing Book Club

Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by Kris Newby

A provocative take on an insect-borne infection

Author Kris Newby is described on the book jacket of Bitten as “an award-winning science writer at Stanford University” and before that “a technology writer for Apple.” The book is in part a history of her own struggle with Lyme disease after a tick bite near Martha’s Vineyard Island, Mass., in 2002.

However, in publishing Bitten, she’s also making a far more provocative claim: that the increase in tick-borne disease is not merely an accident of nature.

As a public health nurse who has spent a good deal of time comparing Lyme disease diagnoses to the standards of the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), I take a keen interest in this subject. The disease is common in my area and is obviously a matter of public health concern.

Tick-Borne Diseases

Bitten follows the increase in the tick-borne illness that seemed to begin in Lyme, Conn., in 1968. Although it’s the best-known, Lyme disease is only one of many tick-borne pathogens now found throughout the United States, which also include anaplasmosis, Borrelia mayonii, Powassan virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick-borne relapsing fever and 364D rickettsiosis (to name just a few).

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The spirochete that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, is named for Willy Burgdorfer, a scientist who began studying ticks in Basel, Switzerland, in 1948. Burgdorfer came to the U.S. on a one-year fellowship at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory, part of the U.S. Public Health Service. His work with ticks and the diseases they carry is now known worldwide.

Also well-known is the fact that many people now fear they suffer from Lyme disease — with symptoms such as fever, joint pain, headaches, facial paralysis or cardiac arrhythmia — although the IDSA and insurance companies limit diagnosis and treatment to only those cases exhibiting specific sets of symptoms.

This frustrates many sufferers, who feel their chronic illness is being unfairly dismissed and ignored. A particular sore point for the author is the reliance on a lab test for Lyme that Newby insists is neither specific nor accurate.

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A Cold War Accident?

Having dealt with patients who believe they have chronic Lyme disease (see my review of Porochista Khakpour’s 2018 book Sick: A Memoir), I’ve heard many of these claims before. Much less familiar, but very interesting, is Newby’s claim that the real cause of Lyme disease is a biological weapon.

Newby asserts that the disease is actually caused by a pathogen that Burgdorfer helped to develop during the early years of the Cold War (when both sides were secretly investigating the possibilities of germ warfare) and that the biogen somehow escaped into the Northeast.

I leave it to the reader to decide just how likely this scenario is. I will say the book is thoroughly researched: Newby used Freedom of Information Act requests to her advantage, there are pages of footnotes and documentation, and she actually interviewed Burgdorfer.

I came to this story with great skepticism and finished it paying close attention to what she was saying.

Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by Kris Newby (Harper Wave, 2019).

CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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