Improving Care in Lyme Disease


Peter L. Salgo, MD: What are we looking for going forward 10 years from now? What is the future of Lyme disease management, whether or not it be testing improvements?

Robert C. Bransfield, MD, DLFAPA: I would think, eventually, you see a trend towards more DNA-based testing platforms that may evolve. I think, eventually, there would be better testing that would help. The question of vaccines, that has been something that people have been struggling with for a long time. One interesting thing is vaccines against ticks themselves, because there have been a lot of problems with the vaccines so far. I think that of those different things that are being considered, that’s probably the best option. So, it has been very hard to develop a vaccine. Just like a vaccine against the common cold. It may not be possible. I would love to see it happen.

Samuel Shor, MD, FACP: One of the major problems is, even if you have a good vaccine for Borrelia, what do you do about the co-infections? And more and more ticks are co-infected.

Leonard Sigal, MD: That’s why, going back to your anti-tick idea, there’s a wisdom commonly shared: the more erythema, the more redness and inflammation you develop at a tick bite site, the less likely you are to actually get infection.

Samuel Shor, MD, FACP: More robust immune response.

Leonard Sigal, MD: And so, that goes back to your comment. If you could come up with a tick saliva vaccine, not only would you cover Borrelia burgdorferi, but you’d also cover coinfections as well.

Robert C. Bransfield, MD, DLFAPA: And I also think there’s a trend towards looking in the microbiome— the tick microbiome, the human microbiome—and that’s part of disease. It’s not like you can ever just get rid of all infection in the body. It’s the microbiome that’s within us, and that’s, I think, becoming a broader area in psychiatry and general medicine with chronic illness: to look at chronic infections and the microbiome, and some of these infections are good for us.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: We’re going to get guideline changes going forward?

Patricia V. Smith: Yes. I think we need to get guideline changes, and the reason that we need to is because, even though I know the IDSA is coming out with their guidelines in early 2018, my understanding is they didn’t last time—and I’m guessing that they won’t this time—include anything for patients with chronic disease or post-treatment Lyme, whatever you want to call it. And so, that is very problematic, the same way with the CDC MMWR article. The way they have, in a little box in the side of the article, put in that they do not recommend any antibiotic treatment or IVIG treatment for chronic Lyme because, of course, we know chronic Lyme doesn’t exist. So, now you leave a whole plethora of patients out there without any kinds of options. They’re not allowed to have alternative medicine and they’re not allowed to have extended antibiotics, which are not alternative medicine. Tuberculosis patients get treated for 2 years with IV antibiotics.

Leonard Sigal, MD: And there’s a reason for that, Pat. There’s a reason for that, and that is the lack of really rigorous science in support of those approaches.

Patricia V. Smith: I agree with you.

Leonard Sigal, MD: What I’d like to see is cooperation between the 2 ends of the spectrum, proper studies.

Patricia V. Smith: I’m totally in favor of that.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: I need to stop right here. I’m going to go around and everybody is going to get a last word. You’re going to get it, too. Dr. Bransfield, start. This is your shot.

Robert C. Bransfield, MD, DLFAPA: So, William Osler, the father of medicine, once said, “To know syphilis is to know medicine.” But I think we could look at that in terms of Lyme disease, and to know Lyme disease, you really have to know not just medicine, but also psychiatry, entomology, epidemiology, immunology, psychoimmunology, rheumatology, and politics.

Leonard Sigal, MD: Throw cardiology in as well.

Robert C. Bransfield, MD, DLFAPA: And cardiology. You need a broad capability that’s beyond the training of most people. So, the big thing we have to add is some humility. We can’t have arrogance. We have to know that a lot of the answers to this are outside our field of specialty, so we have to have open dialogue, open communication like we’re having here, and that’s what will help resolve this.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: Dr. Shor?

Samuel Shor, MD, FACP: Well, it’s important, I think, to recognize that chronic active Borrelia infection exists. What is most contentious is this post-treatment component, which I’ll get to in a second. But what is often disregarded are those who never get diagnosed and are untreated. We have an expanding tick population, and the percentage of ticks are increasing that are actually infected. The majority of patients never recognize they’ve been bitten by a tick. There’s a large percentage of them who don’t have the hallmark feature EM rash, and if they do, it’s often in a hidden place, or it may be atypical. They present with common symptoms—summer flu. Then, throw in the post-treatment group that can potentially present in similar manners with chronic disease. We’ve already alluded to that there’s good evidence of persistence after requisite antibiotics. Not everybody who’s chronically ill after treatment has active infection, but I would argue that a modest percentage do. And so, we need to be empathetic in dealing with this chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and cognitive impairment, this complex group of individuals who, unfortunately, because of poor lab testing and the politicization of this condition, are often peripheralized.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: Dr. Sigal?

Leonard Sigal, MD: In clinical medicine, have an open mind and an open heart. To rephrase what you were saying, we have to have humility, absolutely. We don’t know everything. We have to be open to the possibilities of it being Lyme disease, being another infection, being something else entirely, being immune meditated or inflammatory mediated. You have to be aware of all the potential mechanisms, and you have to be humble in the sight of all these competing potentials. You have to have an open mind and ultimately, even if I can’t make a diagnosis, the person who’s sitting in front of me is suffering. And to show that person the door without any sense of what we’re going to do next is cruel and should not be the practice of any physician. So, an open mind, open heart, clinical practice, and better science. We need to stop arguing with each other, and we need to stop pointing fingers, and we need to be able to move on and say, ultimately, that the only important thing is the patients are suffering. Ergo, I agree: power, I agree; money, I agree. We have to throw out those things and get beyond ourselves and sit down and come up with the studies, mutually agreeable studies, that will allow us to come up with biomarkers; better sero-confirmatory tests, they’re not diagnostic tests; and better approaches to therapy. Anything short of that is an abdication of our primary responsibility, which is to practice scientific and empathic medicine.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: And I promised you the last word.

Patricia V. Smith: You did.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: And I’m keeping my promise. Go ahead.

Patricia V. Smith: I want to speak to the fact that, for many decades now, patients and advocates have been left out of this process of Lyme disease. And by that I meant they’ve been excluded. Other diseases have had committees for years that have sat in Washington, and they’ve sat with these working groups, and they’ve been able to have input on their diseases. Patients have been totally excluded. It’s very frustrating for them. It has caused, in my opinion, some of this bad science, because the educated patients know what kind of studies they need to help them with their disease. They just want to get better. They don’t care about these arguments, they want to get better. They’ve never been able to sit down like this.

So, finally, I’m pleased to say that last year we were successful for the first time, after a lot of opposition from the IDSA and others over the years, in getting legislation passed and included in the 21st Century Cures Act. That provides a working group that—there’s a working group now in Washington—only includes federal officials at the table. They have been making all the decisions for patients. That is really outrageous. And so now, patients, because of the way we set this up, will have a seat at the table, perhaps an advocate, or a member of a Lyme organization will have a seat. Our treating physicians who have never had any input into this process—guess what they’re going to be doing. They’re going to be working with all the different agencies to find out what the resources are that are available for research, what kinds of studies need to be done, and it’s also going to be done in a transparent fashion, whereas now it’s behind closed doors. No one knows what research is selected until after it’s done, and then you have no say in the matter. I just say for Lyme patients, the time has come when they will get a seat at the table, to be able to have input about their disease.

Peter L. Salgo, MD: Alright. Well, thank you all for being here. You can all take off your flak jackets and your helmets. This has been a tremendous discussion, one of the best in my career, and I’m glad we all got at the same place at the same time to discuss what has been one of the most contentious issues in modern American medicine. On behalf of our panel, I want to thank you for joining us, and I hope you found this Peer Exchange® discussion to be useful and informative. I’m Dr. Peter Salgo, and I’ll see you next time.

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