Researcher John Scott responds to The Nature of Things CBC TV episode on Lyme disease
Science and Natural History Unit
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
P.O. Box 500, Station A
Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6
15 October 2013
Dear Ms. Dando:
Re: The Nature of Things with Dr. David Suzuki
Ticked-off: The Mystery of Lyme Disease, 10 October 2013
Although your program on ticks and Lyme disease covered both sides of the chronic Lyme disease debate, it left the viewing audience in a flurry of confusion. What are viewers going to believe, and who are they going to believe. Many statements made by professional interviewees were a cascade of dogmatic myths and misguided speculations. With the exception of Drs. Barthold, Donta, Foley, Harris, Murakami, and Patrick, the medical/scientific information was slanted, warped, or flawed. In the end, the program leaves viewers in a quandary. Unfortunately, patients with persistent Lyme disease lose in the fight to get diagnosed and treated.
Comments like: “ticks will soon occupy the neighbourhoods where people live,” and “full-scale invasion,” and “Lyme disease is growing at an alarming rate,” are pure sensationalism.
As well, the programme was full of unscientific and faulty information. For example, Dr. Virginie Millien, McGill University, stated that the winters were too cold for the ticks [blacklegged ticks, Ixodes scapularis] to overwinter. In reality, in the fall, I. scapularis, which have antifreeze-like compounds in their bodies, descend into the moist, leaf litter and humus layer on the forest floor, and are cozy under an insulating blanket of snow. Climate change is not a factor in overwinter survival. Researchers (Millien, Ogden, Leighton) overlooked the fact that deer mice, Peromyscus maniculatus, which act as reservoir-competent host for the Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, are indigenous across Canada. Therefore, why would any zoologist study the movement of the white-footed mouse, Peromycus leucopus, when we already have deer mice that are competent reservoirs for B. burgdorferi? It makes no practical sense.
Contrary to what was stated by the commenter, ticks do not get B. burgdorferi from squirrels because they are not a reservoir-competent host.
One segment of the video mentioned that ticks collected from songbirds at the McGill Bird Observatory were sent for testing of B. burgdorferi. And yet, no credits were given as to where they were sent for testing, nor did it provide where the relevant results (Scott et al. 2012) were published. This is my research, and it was overlooked. Songbirds widely disperse Lyme disease vector ticks, and people do not have to go to an endemic area to contract Lyme disease (Scott et al. 2012). Migratory songbirds have been bringing Lyme vector ticks into to Canada for millennia. The border has been meaningless to passerine migrants.
The commenter mentioned that in 2002 tick populations started to increase in various provinces. This statement is false. Previously, Dr. Satyendra Banerjee found 20 endemic areas in British Columbia in 1993, and they were officially announced on 14 July 1993 (Banerjee et al. 1994).
Your program made a fervent effort to examine both sides of the debate on chronic Lyme disease; however, it completely overlooked our research on ticks and Lyme disease. To date, we have published 14 peer-reviewed scientific articles. The last article (Scott et al. 2012), which I have enclosed, was cited by BioMedLib, as the most cited in its domain (ticks, Lyme disease, mammalian, avian, hosts, Borrelia burgdorferi) for one full year after publication. I am wondering why our bird-tick-Borrelia research was overlooked.
Tick drags (right on the ground), which were shown several times during the program, are a poor way to collect blacklegged ticks. For immatures (larvae, nymphs), live-trapping is the best method, whereas flagging (brushing low-level vegetation) is superior for adults; note scientific literature. Importantly, the people doing the dragging were inadequately dressed for the job. What happens when a stick tears or pokes a hole in a sock while dragging? Socks have a great tendency to come down unless they are taped up.
Dr. Nick Ogden and Patrick Leighton vouched warmer climate is increasing the number of ticks [blacklegged ticks]. Any research to this effect is inconclusive. In fact, the blacklegged ticks were barely studied before 2002, so how could anyone know whether there has been an increase, or whether they were just ignored and overlooked by Canadian federal and provincial researchers who did not want to draw attention to the problem. I remember in 1992 that one federal researcher told me that he would not know what to do if the blacklegged ticks crossed the border! Actually, they were first documented in Canada at Bracebridge, Ontario in 1904.
Dr. Robbin Lindsay can’t believe the change in the increase of tick populations in Canada. He stated that songbirds bring 50-175 ticks into Canada annually, but says that he has no idea what is causing the increase of ticks and Lyme disease in Canada. Admittedly, he has been studying ticks since 1989, so he should have an explanation. Perhaps he spent too much time at Long Point, and ignored the rest of Canada.
Dr. Gary Wormser states that chronic Lyme disease does not exist. Having him on the video was a great disservice to Lyme disease patients. Each patient must be assessed clinically on an individual basis. Now, more and more patients will have to go stateside for diagnosis and treatment. I have a list of 300 peer-reviewed scientific/medical articles showing the persistence of B. burgdorferi after standard (2-4 weeks) treatment with antibiotics. Dr. Wormser’s comments are highly flawed and, in fact, they are lies—all to cover up his conflict of interests and personal biases. Frankly, he has no regard for patients of this insidious, debilitating disease. His statement: “my heart goes out to them [patients]” is a despicable joke!
Overall, your program was overloaded by too much information from government officials. Frankly, they don’t care about the plight of patients. I quote Upton Sinclair:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not knowing it.”
Your program overlooked one very important point: B. burgdorferi has pleomorphic forms. These diverse forms explain why patients have persistent Lyme disease. In addition, the dormant cysts and motile spirochetes form biofilm colonies that are even more difficult to treat. Additionally, B. burgdorferi sequesters and hides in immune-privileged sites; namely, ligaments, tendons, brain, eyes, and bone. These sites are very hard to penetrate with current antibiotics, especially in older patients. As Lyme disease progresses in the body, the immune system modulates and, over time, is suppressed, and fewer antibodies are produced. This downward pattern of the immunological response has been charted in dogs with Lyme disease.
Dr. Robbin Lindsay mentioned that the current serology test in Canada is the best that we have. This is not true. Dr. Eva Sapi, University of Connecticut, and Advanced Laboratory Services, in Pennsylvania, provide evidence that culture of B. burgdorferi from blood is superior. At Advanced Laboratory Services, B. burgdorferi can be cultured from the blood of immuno-compromised Lyme disease patients, which normally exhibit seronegativity. Serology test kits, which are manufactured in the U.S.A., do not reflect the wide diversity of B. burgdorferi genotypes across North America. Worldwide, there are over 100 genotypes of B. burgdorferi, and only 1-3 are currently represented in 2-tiered Canadian serology tests. Songbirds can bring diverse B. burgdorferi variants to Canadian from as far south as the northern part of South America. Furthermore, people have global travel, and acquire these variants. Also, variant strains could be brought into Canada by songbirds during northward spring migration, or by mammalian hosts, including travellers. Notably, researchers (Clark et al. 2013) in Florida provided evidence of B. andersonii and B. americana in Lyme disease patients. These Borrelia genotypes are pathogenic, and not detected by the 2-tier serology test. Dr. Lindsay completely overlooked what is happening south of the border when it comes to Lyme disease serology testing, and the importance of recognizing these diverse B. burgdorferi genotypes in assessing Lyme infections.
One thing is certain: the medical profession in Canada is woefully ignorant about Lyme disease. When Lyme disease is mentioned to them, they promptly withdraw, are mute, and move on to another topic. Fortunately, your video makes this point.
The comments that an increase in tick numbers is “spurred on by climate change” is strictly bias; this point is clearly unfounded. As well, the statement that 80% of the population will live near an endemic area by 2020, is pure speculation—unfounded hype, and unsubstantiated by scientific proof. Not only are these points myopic, they are only a hypothesis.
In conclusion, your show creates awareness of Lyme disease across Canada, but leaves the audience in a state of confusion asking what is valid, and who is correct. The 1-hour program is slanted far too much towards government spokespeople, and does not get to the heart of how patients are going to get diagnosed and treated in Canada. The audience is left hanging.
John D. Scott, M.Sc.
Xc: Dr. David Suzuki
Enclosures: Article: Scott et al. 2012; Submission Release