As if we didn’t have enough to be worrying about these days, there are people in the medical and scientific communities who say the U.S. military created and spread Lyme disease.

As one commentator noted, “It sounds like one of those conspiracy theories that crop up about most every significant national event, from the supposedly faked moon landing to the inane chatter that airliners crashing into them couldn’t have brought down the World Trade Center without assistance from explosives planted by the government.”

Except, a recent best-selling book offers an explanation, and a handful of members of Congress are now asking for answers, and taxpayer money to combat Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, is so concerned about an alleged tick-bioweapon project that he recently led an effort to pass an amendment ordering the Defense Department to investigate it. Specifically, the amendment orders the department’s inspector general to determine whether government scientists experimented with bioweapons — specifically in ticks — and if those arachnids ended up making their way out of the labs and into the public between the 1950s and the 1970s.

Citing a rise in Lyme disease cases, Smith asked whether there “was any accidental release anywhere or at any time of any of the diseased ticks.”

There are, of course, natural reasons that Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses are on the rise, especially here in Vermont and across the Northeast.

For one, as development near areas with wildlife that carry ticks increases, the number of such disease cases also goes up. “Suburban development in these areas has increased the spread of these germs because people, ticks, deer and tick hosts such as mice and chipmunks are in close contact,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, a warmer climate is favorable for disease-carrying insects and arachnids. As climate change leads to longer summers and warmer nights, “conditions might become more hospitable for many carriers of vector-borne diseases,” the CDC notes.

As the basis for his amendment, Smith cited “Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons” by Kris Newby, to say government research weaponized ticks in Maryland and New York. The book includes interviews with Willy Burgdorfer, who is credited with discovering the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

But Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at University of Minnesota, has stated “there’s just no credible evidence,” behind the stories about weaponizing ticks or Burgdorfer’s involvement with such a project. He characterized it “science fiction.”

Osterholm, who worked with Burgdorfer, said the conspiracy theories surrounding the scientist have no basis in fact. The disease wasn’t even discovered and named until 1977, when two women in Old Lyme, Connecticut, reported symptoms of arthritis. Thus, the name of the disease emerged. It was Burgdorfer who was able to identify the bacteria that caused it.

As deer populations in the Northeast increased after the Great Depression, Osterholm said the instances of Lyme disease also went up. He said it’s likely Lyme disease had long existed in deer, and that as they increased in population, they spread more Lyme.

The bacteria that causes Lyme disease is also not new. Yale researchers studying its DNA found several years ago that it’s been around in North America for at least 60,000 years, long before any people lived on the continent.

The idea that the government does experiments on animals and insects is not so far-fetched, however; the Pentagon has studied whether insects could carry viruses to make genetic modifications to crops, and the Navy even trained combat dolphins for finding bombs underwater.

There’s just not evidence a bioweapon-tick project was one of them.

But Lyme is a serious problem. About 300,000 people in the United States contract Lyme disease each year, with a range of symptoms that are, unfortunately, not specific to Lyme, which makes it difficult to diagnose. Fever, dizziness, muscle and joint pain, and headaches are only a few of the possible things one could experience if they contract Lyme disease, according to the CDC.

This time of year, as we enjoy the Vermont outdoors, we justifiably worry about ticks. And we should.

News of a government experiment run amok does nothing to soothe people’s fears. But it is raising awareness and could, ultimately, lead to a boost in funding for research, prevention and treatment programs — perhaps by as much as $180 million.

Fully understanding the scope and purpose of tick-borne research is important. If the outcome of this “scare” leads to a cure, then it’s a win.

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(1) comment


I grew up in northern NJ a few miles from the NY border. It was farmland turning into suburbia with lots of deer and other mammals. I lived outside as a kid and never got a tick and never heard of ticks north of the NJ pine barrens. I moved to Wells Vermont in 1972 and never encountered a tick here. Moving to Burlington in 1986 for work, I did not return to Wells until 1997. By then "Lyme" was something you had your pets tested for annually and ticks of both kinds were extremely prevalent here. My experience is purely anecdotal you may say. So what. I never saw ticks in north Jersey or Vermont until the 1990's and now they are a plague all over New England and NY/NJ. What it means, I don't know. But I sincerely doubt it has anything to do with deer populations.

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