Sex May Transmit Lyme Disease

Lyme disease

A recent study indicates that it may be possible to transmit Lyme disease through sex. Every year there are over 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced that the disease is more common than they originally believed. Lyme disease is six times more common than HIV/AIDS and almost twice as common as breast cancer.

Last year a study done of the Lyme pathogen, Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb) showed that the Bb is the first organism found that does not require iron in order to survive. The liver produces a hormone known as hepcidin which can kill bacteria by inhibiting iron.  In the case of Bb, however, this fails to work. If the disease is caught soon enough it is generally treatable with short-term antibiotics such as penicillin. However, the longer it takes before diagnosis, the more difficult effective treatment can be. One of the first signs of Lyme disease is a bulls-eye type rash on the skin after the bite from an infected tick.

The Lyme pathogen is thought to be transmitted primarily through deer ticks. Other types of ticks and other insects, including mosquitoes, also carry it. Now it has been found in both semen samples and vaginal secretions. Bb is a spirochete bacterium, one of only six known. Named for their coiled spiral shape, the Lyme spirochete is similar to the one for syphilis, one of the most well-known of the diseases transmitted sexually. The research which was published in January indicates that it may be possible to transmit Lyme disease through sex.

The study was a joint effort by a team of scientists which included dermatologists, molecular biologists, microbiologists, internists, and family practitioners. The team of researchers found that in vaginal secretions taken from women who have already tested positive for Lyme disease, the spirochete Bb was present. By contrast, none of the subjects testing negative for Lyme had positive test samples. Only about half the men who already had Lyme disease tested positive for Bb through semen samples but identical strains of the Lyme spirochete were present in the samples of a heterosexual couple. The presence in genital secretions in those patients already testing positive for Lyme disease coupled with the identical strains present in the heterosexual pair seems to suggest that the disease may be transmitted through sex.

Lyme disease begins with general symptoms such as headache, swollen lymph nodes, fever, chills, and fatigue. An infection that is left untreated may spread and cause a wide range of symptoms which may come and go. Some of these symptoms may include severe headaches, meningitis, joint swelling, and facial palsy. The patient could also experience fatigue, shooting pains, dizziness and heart palpitations. In its late stages, an untreated infection may manifest as severe joint pain and swelling, arthritis, and even problems with short-term memory.

The diagnosis for Lyme is usually based on symptoms and exposure risk. Laboratory blood tests may be helpful with diagnosis if they are performed with validated methods but there is not currently a standardized, reliable testing protocol. The current methods hold a significant possibility of false negatives, which can allow the infection to escape detection.

While the patient’s symptoms, exposure possibilities and current blood tests are the most standard methods of diagnosis, the culturing of the Lyme spirochete would positively determine the presence of Lyme and provide a definitive answer. However, this method of diagnosis is not only costly, but time-consuming as well. The culture check for Bb is rarely performed. The presence of this pathogen in genital secretions adds a new dimension to controversy already surrounding this disease. Given the similarities between the bacteria in Lyme and those in other sexually transmitted diseases and the confirmed presence of the bacteria in both semen and vaginal secretions, it appears that methods of infection other than the bite of a tick may be possible. It now appears that sex may transmit Lyme disease as well.

By Dee Mueller

National Geographic

2 Responses to "Sex May Transmit Lyme Disease"