Scientists have discovered a new illness similar to Lyme disease, spread by ticks and resistant to antibiotics – raising fears about growing numbers of people succumbing to debilitating symptoms.
Like Lyme disease, the new disease causes headache, fatigue and muscle aches, along with a recurrent fever which returns despite initially appearing to have been cured.
The new illness, which has yet to be named, is carried by bacteria called Borrelia miyamotoi, which is feared to be less responsive to antibiotic treatment than other tick-borne diseases.
It can now be revealed that Borrelia miyamotoi has been found to be present in ticks in the UK by researchers at the Public Health Lab, in Porton Down, Wiltshire.
The bacterium was found in 3 of 954 ticks tested at various sites across southern England and analysed by the team last year.
As yet there have been no reports of the disease being spread to humans in the UK, but it has infected people in the United States, with 18 patients diagnosed with the disease in 2013.
There are now concerns that the appearance of the new disease in Britain will lead to confusion in the diagnoses of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
It could also be mistaken for flu, leading to a delay in proper treatment being administered.
Scientists and doctors already have to cope with three types of bacteria associated with Lyme disease: Borrelia burgdoferi , Borrelia garinii, which causes neurological problems and Borrelia afzelii, which leads to skin lesions.
Stella Huyshe-Shires, of Lyme Disease Action, said: “We know this new disease, caused by the recently identified bacteria Borrelia miyamotoi is in the UK. To date it has only been found in a handful of ticks, but it will sound alarm bells.
“It causes similar symptoms to Lyme disease, and that will add to the confusion and complexity of diagnosing these various illnesses.”
Mrs Huyshe-Shires added: “The difficulty about this bacterium is that it causes a relapsing fever so can be misdiagnosed as flu, or other viral infections, and early treatment with antibiotics not given. Patients who were not diagnosed and not treated appropriately run the risk of more serious consequences, as can happen with Lyme disease.”
Earlier this month the Telegraph disclosed that the number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the UK had quadrupled in the last 12 years with more than 1,100 people diagnosed with the disease in 2013, the last year for which figures are available.
Scientists had been aware of the Borrelia miyamotoi bacteria since it was identified in Japan 20 years ago, but it was not associated with any particular disease until a discovery at Yale School of Public Health in 2011.
Durland Fish, Emeritus Professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said: “We stumbled across it at our laboratory in our colony of ticks. We reported it, but we could not get any funding. I happened to be at a conference in Cyprus where there were posters about an infection in Russia. I met the guy who was dealing with it and we and exchanged notes.”
Prof. Fish says he is optimistic that a new antibiotic treatment will be found for the new disease.
The discovery of the new illness comes as Lyme disease is spreading at an alarming rate in the US, spreading from remote woodlands to ordinary household gardens.
It is also reaching a far larger slice of the country than before, according to research carried out by the US government’s Centre for Disease Control.
The latest figures showing that there are now 260 counties where the risk of catching Lyme disease is double the national average. This is twice as many as a decade ago and in the 1990s the figure was only 69.
In the US the whole of Connecticut is now considered a high risk area, and the danger zones have spread north to cover most of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, along with half of Maine and Vermont.
The disease is also spreading along the eastern seaboard of New York, along with Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan and also down to Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Around 30,000 cases a year of the disease are notified to the authorities, but this is feared to be a gross underestimate with the real figure estimated by health insurers to be 10 times higher.
It is also expensive, costing the US insurance based health system as much as $1.3 billion (£840 million) a year to deal with.
According to the latest estimate, there are at least 22 variants of Lyme disease in the US.
“The difference between them is how virulent they are,” said John Aucott, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
There are also two other tick borne diseases, babesiosis and anaplasmosis, deriving from a different bacteria. Both can be fatal, with the latter producing symptoms similar to malaria.
These illnesses can be treated with antibiotics, unlike deer encephalitis, which is the most virulent of all – causing permanent brain damage and fatal in up to 15 per cent of cases.
Lyme disease is named after the Connecticut town where the illness was discovered in the 1970s. Doctors here had been baffled by an outbreak of rheumatoid arthritis among local children. A variety of explanations were put forward, such as the possibility they had picked up the disease from the local water.
Then researchers noticed another common denominator: the children all tended to play in the local woods.
Researchers began to focus on the deer population and the possibility that the problem might be with the ticks that feasted on them.
Scientists noticed that the symptoms, such as a rash, began appearing during the height of the tick season. But it took another five years for the definitive link to be established by Willy Burgdorfer, a scientist with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases working in Montana.
It is estimated that around 100 varieties of tick are responsible for spreading the disease. The bites can be transmitted to humans, dogs, horses and other animals.
For about 75 per cent of people who get the disease, the first symptom is a rash which spreads out from the bite itself. Initially around two inches in diameter, it fades as it spreads outwards giving the appearance of a target or dartboard.
Peter Rand, a senior investigator at the Maine Medical Research Institute, said: “Apart from the rash, you end up feeling pretty lousy. Your joints become inflamed, you get headache, fever and paralysis on one side of the face and there can be neurological problems.”
Other symptoms can include shooting pains and a lowering of the heart rate, which causes dizziness.