The fifth session speaker was Dr. Mark Crislip, infectious disease specialist and host of the Quackcast podcast, on "Lyme from the IDSA to the ILADS to the ABA."
Like several of the other speakers, Dr. Crislip began with a disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, saying that he had "barely any" and "[hasn't] spoken to a drug rep in 25 years."
He started his talk with a description of Lyme disease. It's caused by a spirochete related to syphilis, that comes in three varieties, European, Asian, and North American. The latter is Borellia burgdorferi, a nasty little organism that lives in ticks, primarily deer ticks. It's transmitted via a tick bite, requiring 36 hours of attachment for transmission, and has grown in prevalence in the northeastern United States with the growth of the deer population. In the northeastern U.S., most ticks have Lyme, while in the northwestern U.S., only 1.3% of ticks have Lyme, because those ticks feed on the blood of a fence-sitting lizard that contains something that kills the spirochetes. (Here, Dr. Crislip joked that despite the presence of numerous fence-sitting lizards in Washington, D.C., the effect doesn't work there.)
North American Lyme disease goes through three stages:
- skin rash, arthritis
- spreads to whole body, causes meningitis
- results in encephalomyelitis and neurological symptoms
However, there are "also people who think they have Lyme but don't," or "post-Lyme disease."
Dr. Crislip identified two groups that have radically different views about Lyme disease:
1. The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).
2. The International Lme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS)
The latter says that Lyme is common, hard to diagnose, and "requires infinite antibiotic treatment." The former says nearly the opposite.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a critical appraisal of "chronic Lyme disease" which put the sufferers into four categories:
1. Symptoms of unknown cause, no evidence of B. bergdorferi.
2. Well-defined illness unrelated to B. Bergdorferi (e.g., ringworm).
3. No history of Lyme disease, but blood contains B. Bergdorferi antibodies.
4. Post-Lyme disease syndrome, chronic illness.
The study performed controlled trials of those in category four, and concluded that there is no evidence of B. Bergdorferi persisting beyond treatment, the name "chronic Lyme disease" is a misnomer, and there is no justification for continued antibiotic treatment of such persons.
Dr. Crislip then stated that the two camps present a false dichotomy, but that the truth is closer to the IDSA position. He asked, "is there asymptomatic Lyme?", and answered "yes." 7% of test subjects have asymptomatic seroconversion (show B. Bergdorferi antibodies) in vaccine trial placebo groups. He asked, "can [Lyme be] persistent due to antibiotic resistance?", and answered that there is no good data of that.
He pointed out that Borellia can exist in three forms, the spirochete, a cyst, and an L-shaped form with no cell wall. The cysts appear when the organism is stressed, but isn't found in humans (and is supported in fewer than 25 references in PubMed) and the L-shaped form can be made in the lab but doesn't survive in humans.
Dr. Crislip said that the standard test for Lyme disease is a two-step process, an ELISA test confirmed with a Western Blot (the same process used for testing for HIV). With classic Lyme disease, this is a very reliable method. It can also be tested with PCR and with antigen assays, and "there is genotypic variation in Lyme that could potentially make the two-step test less sensitive."
There are also labs which perform their own unvalidated tests, such as a lab in Texas that he says "almost always yield[s] positive results." These labs with unvalidated diagnostic tests have caused the CDC and FDA to issue warnings about non-valid Lyme tests.
Dr. Crislip posted a list of alleged symptoms of chronic Lyme disease, which was a very long list including "unexplained hair loss" and "feeling as if you are losing your mind," along with another list of alleged symptoms of chronic candida, and noted that they were quite similar. Using such lists, virtually any symptom is an indicator of these alleged chronic conditions.
The ILADS guidelines go even further, and say such things as:
- The labs are all unreliable, so treat for Lyme even if the test is negative.
- The primary symptom is that the patient thinks they have the condition.
- Physical findings are nonspecific and often normal.
- If the Western blot result is ambiguous, treat it as positive (the opposite of what you do with HIV).
- A comparison to tuberculosis and leprosy provides justification for long-term antibiotic treatment (even though those diseases are biologically dissimilar to Lyme).
The best trials in the NEJM treated Lyme disease patients with a month of cipro (and?) doxycycline. The "chronic Lyme disease" advocates say that the immune system is damaged with antibiotic use, and then Lyme disease increases as the immune response declines--based on no data.
If you don't have the data, sue
The state of Connecticut passed a bill "giving doctors immunity for giving infinite supplies of antibiotics" to patients purportedly suffering from "chronic Lyme disease." Since the IDSA guidelines are against long-term antibiotic use, the Connecticut Attorney General sued the IDSA. They couldn't afford $250,000 in legal expenses, so they settled the case.
Dr. Crislip concluded by pointing out that the cause of this unsubstantiated syndrome will be promoted by a new film coming out, called "Under Our Skin," which has the tag line "There's no medicine for someone like you." Crislip noted that of the two doctors in the film promoting this illness, one lost his license for diagnosing Lyme disease over the telephone.
(Part six of my conference summary, on online health and social media, and the final Q&A panel session, is here.)