– Recorded October 3, 2004 REALAUDIO NB: This stream contains both FTRs 479 and 480 in sequence. Each is a 30 minute broadcast.
In the mid-1970’s Lyme Disease broke out in Connecticut and it has since spread through much of the United States. This program examines the possibility that Lyme Disease may have spread as a result of clandestine experimentation on biological warfare on Plum Island—a Department of Agriculture facility that doubled as an Army BW research facility. Dedicated to the study of animal diseases, Plum Island appears to have been the site of experiments with disease-infected ticks conducted by Nazi scientists brought into the United States under Project Paperclip. One of the Nazi scientists who appears to have been involved with Plum Island was Dr. Erich Traub, who was in charge of the Third Reich’s virological and bacteriological warfare program in World War II. Was Traub involved with experiments that led to the spread of Lyme Disease?
Program Highlights Include: Examination of Traub’s studies in the US prior to World War II; Traub’s pro-Nazi activities inside the US before the war; John Loftus’ discovery of references in the National Archives to Nazi scientists experimenting with diseased ticks on Plum Island; Lyme Disease activist Steven Nostrum’s discovery of Loftus’ findings and his work investigating Plum Island; Details of Traub’s involvement with Plum Island; files about Tick Research and Erich Traub that have been purged; Scientific American’s dismissal of the Plum Island/Traub/Paperclip/Lyme Disease link; the Nazi heritage of the Von Holtzbrinck firm—which owns Scientific American; Plum Island experimentation with the disease-carrying “Lone Star Tick”; the fact that the Lone Star Tick—native to Texas—has somehow spread to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut!
1. In order to understand how Erich Traub came to the United States, it is important to understand Project PAPERCLIP. The program begins with a synoptic account of that project and how its prosecution led to Traub’s entry to the United States and his involvement with Plum Island: “Nearing the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to recruit German scientists for postwar purposes. Under a top-secret program code-named Project PAPERCLIP, the U.S. military pursued Nazi scientific talent ‘like forbidden fruit,’ bringing them to America under employment contracts and offering them full U.S. citizenship. The recruits were supposed to be nominal participants in Nazi activities. But the zealous military recruited more than two thousand scientists, many of whom had dark Nazi party pasts.”
(Lab 257: the Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory; by Michael Christopher Carroll; Copyright 2004 by Michael Christopher Carroll; HarperCollins [HC]; p. 7.)
2. “American scientists viewed these Germans as peers, and quickly forgot they were on opposite sides of a ghastly global war in which millions perished. Fearing brutal retaliation from the Soviets for the Nazis’ vicious treatment of them, some scientists cooperated with the Americans to earn amnesty. Others played the two nations off each other to get the best financial deal in exchange for their services. Dr. Erich Traub was troubling on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain after the war, and ordered to research germ warfare viruses for the Russians. He pulled off a daring escape with his family to West Berlin in 1949. Applying for Project Paperclip employment, Traub affirmed he wanted to ‘do scientific work in the U.S.A., become an American citizen, and be protected from Russian reprisals.’” (Idem.)
3. The program sets forth Traub’s work for the Third Reich: “As lab chief of Insel Riems—a secret Nazi biological warfare laboratory on a crescent-shaped island nestled in the Baltic Sea—Traub worked directly for Adolf Hitler’s second-in-charge, SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler, on live germ trials. . . .” (Ibid.; pp. 7–8.)
4. Traub had studied in the United States before the war (at the Rockefeller Institute) and had been involved in Nazi activities inside the U.S. prior to 1939 (the outbreak of World War II). “ . . . Traub also listed his 1930’s membership in Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund, a German-American ‘club’ also known as Camp Sigfriend. Just thirty miles west of Plum Island in Yaphank, Long Island, Camp Sigfried was the national headquarters of the American Nazi movement. . . .Ironically, Traub spent the prewar period of his scientific career on a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, perfecting his skills in viruses and bacteria under the tutelage of American experts before returning to Nazi Germany on the eve of war. Despite Traub’s troubling war record, the U.S. Navy recruited him for its scientific designs, and stationed him at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.” (Ibid.; p. 8.)
5. Nominally under the jurisdiction of the USDA (Department of Agriculture), Plum Island was also used for military biological warfare research on animal diseases. In that regard, it was involved with Fort Dietrick, the Army’s top chemical and biological warfare facility. Note that Traub was at the foundation of the Plum Island/biological warfare nexus. “Just months into his PAPERCLIP contract, the germ warriors of Fort Detrick, the Army’s biological warfare headquarters, in Frederick, Maryland, and CIA operatives invited Traub in for a talk, later reported in a declassified top-secret summary: Dr. Traub is a noted authority on viruses and diseases in Germany and Europe. This interrogation revealed much information of value to the animal disease program from a Biological Warfare point of view. Dr. Traub discussed work done at a German animal disease station during World War II and subsequent to the war when the station was under Russian control.’ Traub’s detailed explanation of the secret operation on Insel Riems, and his activities there during the war and for the Soviets, laid the ground work for Fort Detrick’s offshore germ warfare animal diseased lab on Plum Island. Traub was a founding father. . . .” (Ibid.; pp. 8–9.)
6. It is interesting to note that the Third Reich’s biological warfare program had the cover name of “Cancer Research Program.” (In RFA#16—available from Spitfire—as well as FTR#’s 16, 73, we look at the National Cancer Institute’s Special Viral Cancer Research Program and the evidence suggesting that the project was actually a front for the continuation of biological warfare research. Erich Traub appears to have been involved with the projects related to the SVCRP.) “ . . . Everybody seemed willing to forget about Erich Traub’s dirty past—that he played a crucial role in the Nazis’ ‘Cancer Research Program,’ the cover name for their biological warfare program, and that he worked directly under SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. They seemed willing to overlook that Traub in the 1930’s faithfully attended Camp Sigfried. In fact, the USDA liked him so much, it glossed over his dubious past and offered him the top scientist job at the new Plum Island Laboratory—not once, but twice. Just months after the 1952 public hearings on selecting Plum Island, Doc Shahan dialed Dr. Traub at the naval laboratory to discuss plans for establishing the germ laboratory and a position on Plum Island.” (Ibid.; p. 10.)
7. More about how Traub came to be in a significant position at Plum Island. “Six years later—and only two years after Traub squirmed in his seat at the Plum Island dedication ceremonies—senior sc
ientist Dr. Jacob Traum retired. The USDA needed someone of ‘outstanding caliber, with a long established reputation, internationally as well as nationally,’ to fill Dr. Traum’s shoes. But somehow it couldn’t find a suitable American. ‘As a last resort it is now proposed that a foreigner be employed.’ The aggies’ choice? Erich Traub, who was in their view ‘the most desirable candidate from any source.’ The 1958 secret USDA memorandum ‘Justification for Employment of Dr. Erich Traub’ conveniently omitted his World War II activities; but it did emphasize that ‘his originality, scientific abilities, and general competence as an investigator’ were developed at the Rockefeller Institute in New Jersey in the 1930’s.” (Idem.)
8. The push to employ Traub as the director of Plum Island involved professional recommendations that omitted his work for the Third Reich: “The letters supporting Traub to lead Plum Island came in from fellow Plum Island founders. ‘I hope that every effort will be made to get him. He has had long and productive experience in both prewar and postwar Germany,’ said Dr. William Hagan, dean of the Cornell University veterinary school, carefully dispensing with his wartime activities. The final word came from his dear American friend and old Rockefeller Institute boss Dr. Richard Shope, who described Traub as ‘careful, skill, productive and very original’ and ‘one of this world’s most outstanding virologists.’ Shope’s sole reference to Traub at war: ‘During the war he was in Germany serving in the German Army.’” (Idem.)
9. Traub declined the offer to lead the lab. There is considerable evidence that he was involved with biological warfare research at Plum Island. “Declining the USDA’s offer, Traub continued his directorship of the Tubingen laboratory in West Germany, though he visited Plum Island frequently. In 1960, he was forced to resign as Tubingen’s director under a dark cloud of financial embezzlement. Traub continued sporadic lab research for another three years, and then left Tubingen for good–a scandalous end to a checkered career. In the late 1970’s, the esteemed virologist Dr. Robert Shope, on business in Munich, paid his father Richard’s old Rockefeller Institute disciple a visit. The germ warrior had been in early retirement for about a decade by then. ‘I had dinner with Traub one day—out of old time’s sake—and he was a pretty defeated man by then.’ On May 18, 1985, the Nazis’ virus warrior Dr. Erich Traub died unexpectedly in his sleep in West Germany. He was seventy-eight years old.” (Ibid.; pp. 10–11.)
10. “A biological warfare mercenary who worked under three flags—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States—Traub was never investigated for war crimes. He escaped any inquiry into his wartime past. The full extent of his sordid endeavors went with him to his grave. While America brought a handful of Nazi war criminals to justice, it safeguarded many others in exchange for verses to the new state religion—modern science and espionage. Records detailing a fraction of Eric Traub’s activities are now available to the public, but most are withheld by Army intelligence and the CIA on grounds of national security. But there’s enough of a glimpse to draw quite a sketch.” (Ibid.; p. 11.)
11. An important chapter in the story of how the inquiry into the possible link between Plum Island, Erich Traub’s work on behalf of the US and the spread of Lyme Disease concerns the work of former Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus. In his book The Belarus Secret, Loftus referred to work done on Plum Island in the early 1950’s in which Nazi scientists were experimenting on diseased ticks. Might that have referred to Traub?! “ . . . Attorney John Loftus was hired in 1979 by the Office of Special Investigations, a unit set up by the Justice Department to expose Nazi war crimes and unearth Nazis hiding in the United States. Given top-secret clearance to review files that had been sealed for thirty-five years, Loftus found a treasure trove of information on America’s postwar Nazi recruiting. In 1982, publicly challenging the government’s complacency with the wrongdoing, he told 60 Minutes that top Nazi officers had been protected and harbored in America by the CIA and the State Department. ‘They got the Emmy Award,’ Loftus wrote. ‘My family got the death threats.’” (Ibid.; p. 13.)
12. “Old spies reached out to him after the publication of his book, The Belarus Secret, encouraged that he—unlike other authors—submitted his manuscript to the government, agreeing to censor portions to protect national security. The spooks gave him copies of secret documents and told him stories of clandestine operations. From these leads, Loftus ferreted out the dubious Nazi past of Austrian president and U.N. secretary general Kurt Waldheim. Loftus revealed that during World War II, Waldheim had been an officer in a German Army unit that committed atrocities in Yugoslavia. A disgraced Kurt Waldheim faded from the international scene soon thereafter.” (Idem.)
13. “In the preface of The Belarus Secret, Loftus laid out a striking piece of information gleaned from his spy network: ‘Even more disturbing are the records of the Nazi germ warfare scientists who came to America. They experimented with poison ticks dropped from planes to spread rare diseases. I have received some information suggesting that the U.S. tested some of these poison ticks on the Plum Island artillery range off the coast of Connecticut during the early 1950’s. . . .Most of the germ warfare records have been shredded, but there is a top secret U.S. document confirming that ‘clandestine attacks on crops and animals’ took place at this time.” (Idem.)
14. More pieces of evidence on the tantalizing trail of evidence pointing to a possible Plum Island/Traub/Lyme disease link: “Erich Traub had been working for the American biological warfare program from his 1949 Soviet escape until 1953. We know he consulted with Fort Dietrick scientists and CIA operatives; that he worked for the USDA for a brief stint; and that he spoke regularly with Plum Island director Doc Shahan in 1952. Traub can be physically placed on Plum Island at least three times—on dedication day in 1956 and two visits, once in 1957 and again in the spring of 1958. Shahan, who enforced an ultrastrict policy against outside visitors, each time received special clearance from the State Department to allow Traub on Plum Island soil.” (Ibid.; p. 14.)
15. If in fact Traub was involved with research on Plum Island, this development would have been consistent with programs being conducted at that time involving experimentation on unwitting American citizens with biological and chemical warfare research agents: “Research unearthed three USDA files from the vault of the National Archives—two were labeled TICK RESEARCH and a third E.TRAUB. All three folders were empty. The caked-on dust confirms the file boxes hadn’t been open since the moment before they were taped shut in the 1950’s. Preposterous as it sounds, clandestine outdoor germ warfare trials were almost routine during this period. In 1952, the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for a ‘vigorous, well-planned, large-scale [biological warfare] test to the secretary of defense later that year stated, ‘Steps should be take to make certain of adequate facilities are available, including those at Fort Detrick, Dugway Proving Ground, Fort Terry (Plum Island) and an island field testing area.’ Was Plum Island the island field testing area? Indeed, when the Army first scouted Plum Island for its Cold War designs, they charted wind speeds and direction and found that, much to their liking, the prevailing winds blew out to sea.” (Idem.)
“One of the participating ‘interested agencies’ was the USDA, which admittedly set up large plots of land throughout the Midwest for airborne anticrop germ spray tests. Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division ran ‘vulnerability tests’ in which operatives walked around Washington, D.C., and San Francisco with suitcases holding Serratia marcescens—a bacteria recommended to Fort Detrick by Traub’s nominal supervisor, Nazi germ czar and Nuremberg defendant Dr. Kurt Blome. Tiny perforations allowed the germs’ release so they could trace the flow of the germs through airports and bus terminals. Shortly thereafter, eleven elderly men and women checked into hospitals with never-before-seen Serratia marcescens infections. One patient died. Decades later when the germ tests were disclosed, the Army denied responsibility. . . . In the summer of 1966, Special Operations men walked into three New York City subway stations and tossed lightbulbs filled Bacillus subtilis, a benign bacteria, onto the tracks. The subway trains pushed the germs through the entire system and theoretically killed over a million passengers.” (Idem.)
17. “Tests were also run with live, virulent, anti-animal germ agents. Two hog-cholera bombs were exploded at an altitude of 1,500 feet over pigpens set up at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. And turkey feathers laced with Newcastle disease virus were dropped on animals grazing on a University of Wisconsin farm.” (Ibid.; p. 15.)
18. “The Army never fully withdrew its germ warfare efforts against food animals. Two years after the Army gave Plum Island to the USDA—and three years after it told President Eisenhower it had ended all biological warfare against food animals—the Joint Chiefs advised that ‘research on anti-animal agent-munition combinations should’ continue, as well as ‘field testing of anti-food agent munition combinations. . . .’ In November 1957, military intelligence examined the elimination of the food supply of the Sino-Soviet Bloc, right down to the calories required for victory: ‘In order to have a crippling effect on the economy of the USSR, the food and animal crop resources of the USSR would have to be damaged within a single growing season to the extent necessary to reduce the present average daily caloric intake from 2,800 calories to 1,400 calories; i.e., the starvation level. Reduction of food resources to this level, if maintained for twelve months, would produce 20 percent fatalities, and would decrease manual labor performance by 95 percent and clerical and light labor performance by 80 percent.’ At least six outdoor stockyard tests occurred in 1964–65. Simulants were sprayed into stockyards in Fort Worth, Kansas City, St. Paul, Sioux Falls, and Omaha in tests determining how much foot-and-mouth disease virus would be required to destroy the food supply.” (Idem.)
19. “Had the Army commandeered Plum Island for an outdoor trial? Maybe the USDA lent a hand with the trial, as it had done out west by furnishing the large test fields. After all, the Plum Island agreement between the Army and the USDA allowed the Army to borrow the island from the USDA when necessary and in the national interest.” (Idem.)
20. A former employee at Plum Island in the 1950’s has personal recollection of a “Nazi scientist” releasing ticks outdoors on Plum Island. “Traub might have monitored the tests. A source who worked on Plum Island in the 1950’s recalls that animal handlers and a scientist released ticks outdoors on the island. ‘They called him the Nazi scientist, when they came in, in 1951—they were inoculating these ticks,’ and a picture he once saw ‘shows the animal handler pointing to the area on Plum where they released the ticks.’ Dr. Traub’s World War II handiwork consisted of aerial virus sprays developed on Insel Riems and tested over occupied Russia, and of field work for Heinrich Himmler in Turkey. Indeed, his colleagues conducted bug trials by dropping live beetles from planes. An outdoor tick trial would have been de rigueur for Erich Traub.” (Ibid.; pp. 15–16.)
21. Next, the program sets forth the case of Steve Nostrum—an early Lyme Disease victim whose reading of Loftus’ book spurred him to begin inquiring about the Plum Island/Traub connection. “Somebody gave Steve Nostrum a copy of John Loftus’s The Belarus Secret at one of his support group meetings. Steve had long suspected that Plum Island played a role in the evolution of Lyme disease, given the nature of its business and its proximity to Old Lyme, Connecticut. But he never publicly voiced the hunch, fearing a loss of credibility; hard facts and statistics earned him a reputation as a leader in the Lyme disease field. Now in his hands, he had a book written by a Justice Department attorney who not only had appeared on 60 Minutes but also had brought down the secretary general of the United Nations. Nostrum disclosed the possible Plum-Lyme connection on his own television show. He invited local news reporter and Plum Island ombudsman Karl Grossman to help him explore the possibilities in light of the island’s biological mishaps. Asked why he wrote about Loftus’s book in his weekly newspaper column, Grossman says, ‘To let the theory rise or fall. To let the public consider it. And it seemed to me that the author was a Nazi hunter and a reputable attorney—this was not trivial information provided [and it was provided] by some reliable person.’” (Idem.)
22. “In October 1995, Nostrum, fresh off nursing duty (having earned an RN degree to help Lyme disease patients), rushed to a rare public meeting held by the USDA. In a white nurse’s coat, stethoscope still around his neck, Nostrum rose. Trembling, his blond beard now streaked with gray, he clutched his copy of The Belarus Secret as he read the damning passage out loud for the USDA and the public to hear. ‘I don’t know whether this is true,’ he said, looking at the dais. ‘If it is true, there must be an investigation—if it’s not true, then John Loftus needs to be prosecuted.’ People in the audience clapped, and some were astonished. A few gawked, thinking he was nuts. How did the official USDA officials react? ‘If stares could kill, I would have been dead,’ remembers Nostrum.” (Idem.)
23. “Hiding behind the same aloof veil of secrecy they had employed for decades, the USDA brazenly cut him off. ‘There are those who think that little green men are hiding out there,’ the officials responded to Nostrum. ‘But trust us when we say there are no space aliens and no five-legged cows.’ A few laughs erupted in the crowd. ‘It did nothing but detract from what I was saying,’ says Nostrum. ‘But I said it, and I had the documentation to support it.’” (Idem.)
24. The author speculates about the deer and birds that visited Plum Island, and the possibility that some of the infected ticks may well have traveled to the mainland from the island on those vectors. (Carroll explains that white-tailed deer regularly swim the two miles to the island to forage and migrating birds stop on Plum Island on their way North and South during their annual migrations.) “ . . . If Dr. Traub continued his outdoor germ experiments with the Army and experimented with ticks outdoors, the ticks would have made contact with mice, deer, and more than 140 species of wild birds known to frequent and nest on Plum Island. The birds spread their toxic cargo to resting and nesting perches atop the great elms and oaks of Old Lyme and elsewhere, just like they spread the West Nile virus throughout the United States.” (Ibid.; p. 21.)
25. After noting that allegations of the discovery of Bb (the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease) in the late 1940’s coincides with Traub’s arrival on the island, the broadcast sets forth the denials by a USDA spokesperson that there was any BW/Traub/Plum Island link to the spread of the Lyme infection. Note that Scientific American dismissed the possibility of a “Nazi scientist” link to Plum Island. In FTR#240—part of the long FTR series about “German Corporate Control over American Media”–it was noted that the Von Holtzbrinck firm controls that magazine. Like its larger competitor Bertelsmann, the Von Holtzbrinck firm is rooted firmly in the Third Reich. In FTR#226, we examined the Nazi heritage of Von Holtzbrinck and the possibility that they may employed the notorious SS officer and Goebbels protégé Werner Naumann. The possibility that the Von Holtzbrinck/Scientific American link may have had something to do with the magazine’s casual dismissal of the Traub/Plum/Lyme link is not one to be too readily dismissed. “Researchers trying to prove that Lyme disease existed before 1975 claim to have isolated Bb [the bacterium that causes the infection] in ticks collected on nearby Shelter Island and Long Island in the late 1940’s. That timing coincides with both Erich Traub’s arrival in the United States on Project PAPERCLIP and the Army’s selection of Plum Island as its offshore biological warfare laboratory. The USDA’s spokesperson, Sandy Miller Hays, is unconvinced about the possibility of a link between Lyme disease and Plum Island: . . . A PR expert, Hays had Scientific American eating out of her hand in June 2000, when they reported her as saying, ‘ ‘We still get asked about the Nazi scientists,’ . . . [with] the slightest trace of weariness creeping into her voice.’ In their feature story on Plum Island, the prestigious magazine dubbed the intrigue surrounding the island as a ‘fanciful fictional tapestry.’” (Ibid.; pp. 21–22.)
26. The program concludes with examination of Plum Island’s work with the “Lone Star Tick”—native to Texas. The focal point of experimentation on Plum Island in the 1970’s, the Lone Star tick—like Lyme Disease–is now spread throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. How did that happen? “ . . . The lab chief [Dr. Charles Mebus] failed to mention that Plum Island also worked on ‘hard ticks,’ a crucial distinction. A long overlooked document, obtained from the files of an investigation by the office of former Long Island Congressman Thomas Downey, sheds new light on the second, more damning connection to Lyme disease. A USDA 1978 internal research document titled ‘African Swine Fever’ notes that in 1975 and 1976, contemporaneous with the strange outbreak in Old Lyme, Connecticut, ‘the adult and nymphal stages of Abylomma americanum and Abylomma cajunense were found to be incapable of harboring and transmitting African swine fever virus.’ In laymen’s terms, Plum Island was experimenting with the Lone Star tick and the Cayenne tick—feeding them on viruses and testing them on pigs—during the ground zero year of Lyme disease. They did not transmit African swine fever to pigs, said the document, but they might have transmitted Bb to researchers or to the island’s vectors. The Lone Star tick, named after the white star on the back of the female, is a hard tick; along with its cousin, the deer tick, it is a culprit in the spread of Lyme disease. Interestingly, at that time, the Lone Star tick’s habitat was confined to Texas. Today, however, it is endemic throughout New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. And no one can really explain how it migrated all the way from Texas. . . .” (Ibid.; pp. 24–25.)
The first article below reports that that that the U.S. House of Representatives has approved an amendment to a bill instructing the Defense Department’s Inspector General to determine if the US had experimented with Ticks for use as a bioweapon between 1950–1970, and also determine if any escaped from US government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York. The second article suggests that a tick is a very effective vehicle to spread diseases.
Julian Borger in Washington
Tue 16 Jul 2019 18.35 EDT
House orders Pentagon to review if it exposed Americans to weaponised ticks
A New Jersey lawmaker suggests the government turned ticks and insects into bioweapons to spread disease and possibly released them
The US House of Representatives has called for an investigation into whether the spread of Lyme disease had its roots in a Pentagon experiment in weaponising ticks.
The House approved an amendment proposed by a Republican congressman from New Jersey, Chris Smith, instructing the defence department’s inspector general to conduct a review of whether the US “experimented with ticks and … insects regarding use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975”.
The review would have to assess the scope of the experiment and “whether any ticks or insects used in such experiment were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design”.
The amendment was approved by a voice vote in the House and added to a defence spending bill, but the bill still has to be reconciled with a Senate version.
Smith said the amendment was inspired by “a number of books and articles suggesting that significant research had been done at US government facilities including Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York, to turn ticks and … insects into bioweapons”.
A new book published in May by a Stanford University science writer and former Lyme sufferer, Kris Newby, has raised questions about the origins of the disease, which affects 400,000 Americans each year.
Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons, cites the Swiss-born discoverer of the Lyme pathogen, Willy Burgdorfer, as saying that the Lyme epidemic was a military experiment that had gone wrong.
Burgdorfer, who died in 2014, worked as a bioweapons researcher for the US military and said he was tasked with breeding fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, and infecting them with pathogens that cause human diseases.
According to the book, there were programs to drop “weaponised” ticks and other bugs from the air, and that uninfected bugs were released in residential areas in the US to trace how they spread. It suggests that such a scheme could have gone awry and led to the eruption of Lyme disease in the US in the 1960s.
• This article was amended on 18 July 2019 to clarify that ticks are not insects.
In another January 25, 2018 Guardian article titled “Forget Ebola, Sars and Zika: ticks are the next global health threat” it reveals what an effective disease pathogen the tick is. The article states:
“few parasites are as good at jumping between animals and people as the tick. “… “Ticks can carry an extremely wide array of human pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Within the long list of human ailments caused by ticks, several dangerous diseases stand out.”
Zoologist Mackenzie Kwak’s research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites.
Thu 25 Jan 2018 07.47 EST
Forget Ebola, Sars and Zika: ticks are the next global health threat
Ticks carry a wide array of pathogens – and environmental changes mean they are spreading
Since the beginning of our species we have been at war. It’s a continuous, neverending fight against the smallest of adversaries: armies of pathogens and parasites. As we have developed new ways to survive and stop them, they have evolved ever more complex and ingenious methods to thwart our efforts.
Humans have faced numerous attempts to challenge our dominance on planet Earth , and from the Black Death to the Spanish flu, we have weathered them all. However, since the start of the 21st century, with its trend towards global interconnectedness, these onslaughts are ever-increasing. In the past 17 years we have battled Sars, the Ebola virus, Mers, and more recently the mysterious mosquito-borne Zika virus. These diseases seeming to appear from nowhere and rapidly ravage our populations. One commonality is that they almost always originate in animals before jumping across to people, and few parasites are as good at jumping between animals and people as the tick.
Ticks could be best described as the used syringes of the natural world due to their promiscuous feeding habits. Most ticks go through three stages in their lives and feed on a different host at each stage, whilst simultaneously collecting hitchhiking microbes in their blood meals. Ticks also have one of the widest distributions of any vector on Earth – they can be found on every continent, including frigid Antarctica. This combination of ubiquity and a bad habit for accumulating pathogenic microbes make ticks some of the most dangerous vectors on the planet.
So why ticks? And why now?
Partly, it’s because ticks have been understudied for so long that only recently have we begun to realise just how much they affect our health. It took until 1975 for the infamous Lyme disease even to be formally described, and today the list of microbes found within ticks grows ever larger every year as numerous new species are discovered.
Changing ecosystems are also forcing ticks into closer contact with humans. Perhaps the most immediate changes are being driven by land clearing, which is forcing wildlife into closer contact with humans; with wildlife come ticks and the diseases they carry. Climate change has also been implicated: as the climate gets warmer, some ticks are expanding their ranges into places where cool winter temperatures previously limited their distribution. Geographical boundaries are also being eroded as rapid transport links environments which were previously isolated from one another. This presents easy opportunity for ticks to cross borders and spread to new habitats they may not have previously occupied.
In short, our manipulation of the environment has set the stage for a tick-driven health crisis.
Ticks can carry an extremely wide array of human pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Within the long list of human ailments caused by ticks, several dangerous diseases stand out.
While the recognition of Lyme disease has led to a greater study of the bacteria which cause it and more frequent testing for patients, it has been a double-edged sword, as its notoriety has overshadowed equally important diseases like tick-borne rickettsiosis (TBR). TBR is caused by a number of different bacteria distributed across the globe. Unfortunately, TBR often presents with signs and symptoms similar to Lyme disease, such as rashes, joint and muscle pain, and fatigue. Although deaths are rare when TBR is treated with antibiotics like doxycycline, when the disease is incorrectly diagnosed or adequate medical infrastructure is lacking, mortalities can still occur.
Babesiosis is an emerging tick-borne disease caused by a protozoan called Babesia, a species related to the microbe which causes malaria. The disease is rarely tested for by doctors and the global levels of human infection are unknown, although some researchers believe that they may be much higher than present rates of diagnosis indicate. Infections can be highly variable, with about a quarter of infected adults showing no signs of the disease, while others will die from the infection. In truth the disease is still poorly understood in humans, which is compounded by the fact that several species of Babesia cause the disease and the signs and symptoms can be wide-ranging and often include fever, fatigue, anaemia, and nausea – all common features of other illnesses.
Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF) is perhaps the most terrifying disease spread by ticks, as there are no treatments available, and mortality rates can be as high as 40% in infected humans. To put it into perspective, that mortality rate is similar to untreated cases of Ebola or the bubonic plague. The World Health Organisation views CCHF virus as having a high chance of causing human disease epidemics and has accordingly directed considerable funding towards finding a treatment, although to date none have been developed. The wide distribution of tick vectors capable of spreading the disease coupled with the ability of common domestic animals such as sheep and cattle to maintain the CCHF virus in their blood at high levels means the potential for CCHF to expand into new regions like Europe is highly probable.
While only discovered in 2009, SFTS virus (severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome) has sparked widespread fear through much of Asia, especially in Japan where 57 people have died of the disease since 2013. Signs of the disease can range in severity from relatively mild, like fever and diarrhoea, to severe, which can include multiple organ failure. The fact that the epidemiology of the disease is so poorly known makes predicting and controlling its spread difficult. It is also known to be carried by at least two cosmopolitan tick species which are spread throughout the world from the UK, to the US, and even Australia. That might sounds bad enough, but things are even worse: although the disease typically gets to humans via a tick, from there it can spread to other humans or their pets and back again into ticks who feed on infected hosts.
Ticks are ubiquitous, dangerous, and are coming into ever greater contact with us. We must recognise that the next public health crisis may come from our backyards rather than a remote equatorial jungle in Africa or Asia.