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UNF Researchers Make Big Discovery About Lyme Disease

It's a groundbreaking medical finding on the UNF campus.

Dr. Kerry Clark, University of North Florida associate professor of public health, and his colleagues have found two species of Lyme disease bacteria previously unknown to infect humans in patients.

These two Lyme disease species, Borrelia americana and Borrelia andersonii, were found in symptomatic patients living in the Southeastern United States. The commonly found lone star tick, formerly believed by many to be incapable of transmitting Lyme disease, was implicated in some of these cases.

His research, published in the May issue of The International Journal of Medical Sciences, is significant for several reasons. First, only one Lyme bacterial species, Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto, was previously recognized to cause disease in North America. Current testing methods and interpretation criteria, designed to detect just one species, may explain many of the complaints involving the unreliability of Lyme disease tests in the U.S.

“This study’s findings suggest that multiple Borrelia species may be causing Lyme disease in the Southeast, another tick species may also be transmitting it in the Southeast and that it may be much more common here than was previously thought,” says Clark. “Additional evidence presented suggests that some people may develop chronic infections, and the current antibody testing approach for Lyme disease may not identify the infections.”

The belief that only black-legged “deer ticks” can transmit Lyme disease has been widely publicized for decades. Lyme disease risk has been calculated largely based upon the prevalence and infection rate of these “deer ticks. Clark’s findings, together with past studies implicating lone star ticks associated with Lyme disease, suggest otherwise.

Clark and his team identified lone star ticks removed from humans who tested positive for Lyme bacteria, including the species of Borrelia burgdorferi, already known to cause the disease in North America. Some of the ticks removed from the patients tested positive, too.

Lyme disease can be quite serious and patients can suffer for years, often struggling with being properly diagnosed. Here are some tips to avoid it:

Protect Yourself from Tick Bites

Know where to expect ticks. Blacklegged ticks live in moist and humid environments. To avoid ticks, walk in the center of trails and avoid tall vegetation.

Use a repellent with DEET. Repellents containing 20% or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) can be applied to the skin, and they can protect up to several hours.

Perform Daily Tick Checks. Check your body for ticks after being outdoors, even in your own yard. Conduct a body check upon return from potentially tick-infested areas by searching your entire body for ticks.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.