The tick-borne disease can cause neurological problems, arthritis and meningitis, among other symptoms, and it is common in just about every region of the United States, except the South. Now Carter and two other JSU professors, Chris Murdock and Benjie Blair, are on a scientific quest to determine how the disease behaves in Alabama, and the trio is breaking new ground.
Two years ago, Carter, Murdock and Blair began testing ticks for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in North America. The researchers collected and analyzed hundreds of ticks found in Alabama, but they didn’t find evidence of the Lyme-causing bacteria here until they began testing dog blood for B. burgdorferi last year.
Of the 113 dog blood samples collected since then, the researchers say they have positively identified the disease-causing bacteria in seven samples, each of which were collected from stray dogs that lived in a county in central Alabama, Carter said. The researchers declined to say precisely where the dogs came from, to avoid unnecessarily alarming the public.
“We can definitively say that we found it in these dogs because the test we have is so specific,” Carter said.
Finding the Lyme-causing agent in dogs is significant, because despite past attempts, it’s the first time the bacteria has been identified in dogs here, according to the scientists.
Murdock, a molecular biologist, directs graduate students who work in a JSU lab to conduct tests that detect B. burgdorferi DNA.
Garry Mullen is a medical-veterinarian entomologist who studied the tick-borne illness before retiring from Auburn. He said JSU’s research methodology is sound, but added that more research is needed to determine what the finding means.
“This is a step,” Mullen said. “I think it is certainly worth publishing.”
He stressed that while finding the bacteria in dog blood is significant, it’s not extensive enough to draw conclusions about how the disease spreads in Alabama. He said that though the bacteria was found in the dogs, it may not have resulted in Lyme disease.
Mullen said the publication process can be an important step in establishing the validity of scientists’ findings when they submit their work to a journal that requires scientific review.
The professors say they are confident of their findings, and they plan to publish the work in a scientific journal. But, the three men have yet to do so because they’ve not completed their work.
The JSU researchers said they hope their work will lead to a more accurate understanding of Lyme disease in Alabama.
“We want to make sure these cases are reported for this state,” Murdock said.
Carter said Lyme disease is of particular concern to him because he has suffered from the illness. While he said he doesn’t know where he picked up the causative ticks, but he does say he has had a difficult time receiving a proper diagnosis for the illness in Alabama.
“When I got really sick, I just went through what most people go through,” Carter said. “They’re just going to tell you there is no Lyme in Alabama.”
Carter said he visited 13 physicians before he found a doctor that diagnosed his illness as Lyme.
He said that if he can learn more about how the illness spreads in Alabama, more physicians may test infected patients for it in time to treat the illness before it takes hold of its host.
Some doctors doubt that Lyme exists in Alabama, because there has been misinformation about the illness since it was discovered in Lyme, Conn. in the 1970s, Mullen said. He said doubt about the disease’s presence in Alabama lingers even though the first confirmed case here was identified in 1985.
While the disease does occur in Alabama, it does so less frequently than in other regions because of the disease-carrying ticks’ feeding habits here, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When living in the South blacklegged ticks, which carry the bacteria that cause Lyme, are more likely to feed on animals that don’t transmit Lyme, such as lizards. In the northeastern part of the country, the ticks feed on the white-footed mouse, a woodland creature known to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
While finding the Lyme-causing bacteria in dog blood is a significant find for the professors, they say much more work is needed to find the answers to the questions that remain for Alabama Lyme patients like Carter. The researchers have been paying for their work with local funding and just last month received a grant for $7,500 from the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama. To develop the research further, they say they’ll need more resources.
"We need more ticks, and then we need more money," Murdoch said.
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.