WASHINGTON -- Tests on ticks collected in the 1940s indicate Lyme disease plagued the United States three decades earlier than previously thought and may have originated on Long Island, researchers said Thursday.
Analyzing the bodies of 136 ticks preserved in alcohol in the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Mass., and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, researchers found evidence of the microbe that causes Lyme disease in some ticks that roamed eastern Long Island 44 years ago.
'These data suggest that the appearance of the Lyme disease ... preceded, by at least a generation, the formal recognition of this disease as a clinical entity in the United States,' the researchers reported in the journal Science.
The ticks had been found between 1924 and 1951 in various parts of the country, including Naushon Island and Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., various parts of Long Island, N.Y., South Carolina, Florida and California.
Researchers from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Harvard University in Cambridge and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., analyzed the specimens using a technique known as polymerase chain reaction, which allows scientists to analyze very tiny samples of genetic material.
The researchers found genetic material from the organism that causes Lyme disease -- a spirochete called Borrelia burgdoferi -- in 13 ticks collected in the 1940s from the adjacent communities of Montauk Point and Hither Hills in eastern Long Island. No such genetic material was found in any other samples even though many are now infested with infected ticks, which spread the disease to humans through their bites.
While 'it is tempting' to conclude Lyme disease originated there, the researchers said they had not analyzed enough samples from elsewhere to be sure.
However, around that time, Long Island doctors diagnosed a variety of diseases with names like 'Montauk knee' or 'Montauk spider bite' that had symptoms similar to Lyme disease and may have been Lyme disease, said Dr. David Persing, a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic who led the research while at Yale.
Lyme disease was not recognized as a distinct illness in the United States until 1975, when patients were first diagnosed in Lyme, Conn., which is located across the Long Island Sound from the Montauk Point and Hither Hills.
More than 14,000 cases of Lyme disease have been reported in 43 states since 1980, with most cases occurring in the Northeast and Mid- Atlantic coastal states and Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and Oregon.
The first syptoms are a usually distinctive rash at the tick bite site and flu-like symptoms. If diagnosed early, the disease can usually be treated with antibiotics. But without treatment, complications such as chronic arthritis, neurological damage and organ damage can occur.
Understanding more about the history of the disease has no direct therapeutic value, Persing said, but helps scientists gain a fuller understanding of the illness.
Researchers are uncertain how Lyme disease came to the United States but the illness had been reported in Europe and could have been brought over through the importation of certain tick-infested animals, he said.