The disease seemed to come from nowhere, passing from a vector to humans. Symptoms can be mild or devastating and apparently last for years in some cases. Rumors have circulated as to its origins: Did it escape from a government laboratory?
While the account is similar, this infectious agent was not the coronavirus. It was Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacteria transmitted to humans by the blacklegged tick and the cause of Lyme disease.
The complex intersection between human culture and infectious disease fascinates Amanda Roome, alumnus of Binghamton University, now a researcher at the Bassett Healthcare Network. Her primary focus is on tick-borne diseases in agricultural and forestry workers, a trajectory she began during her research under the direction of anthropology professor Ralph Garruto, director of the Center for Research on Transmitted Diseases. by Binghamton University ticks.
You cannot consider infectious diseases when it comes to anthropology, which is usually concentrated at the population level; chronic disease, with its link to health and lifestyle, may seem like a more obvious link, Roome acknowledged. Lyme, however, is a prime example of how a disease can interact with social and political forces.
Although first discovered in the 1970s, Lyme has been around for a very long time; the bacteria that caused it was discovered in a tick trapped in amber, and in an old mouse specimen in a museum, for example. That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories from rising, which claim the disease was invented in a government lab on Plum Island.
Today, controversy persists over what is often referred to as post-treatment or chronic Lyme disease. The very existence of this condition is disputed, as well as how it can be treated.
“You have your social implications and your political implications, and you also have your environmental implications. It’s really interesting, all the different things that come into play, ”she said. “I like biomedical anthropology because it has a big picture. It is not as simple as “biological agent meets human”, as we saw last year; there are many social influences that shape the way different diseases are experienced in different populations. ”
A diversified field
Roome, who received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Hawaii, was first drawn to the practical nature of Binghamton’s biomedical anthropology program. She obtained her master’s degree in 2014, followed by her doctorate in anthropology in 2019.
Garruto was her advisor, and her experiences with him ultimately prepared her well for her job at Bassett, she said.
“He really pushes his students to get involved in what interests them,” she said.
For his part, Garruto appreciated the opportunity to work with Roome, who was an outstanding student in the masters and doctoral programs.
“His versatility, resourcefulness, and ability to engage with community members are essential for understanding Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses and, overall, for understanding how human behavior and environment have an impact on health, ”he said.
While ticks and the diseases they transmit were central concerns in Binghamton, Roome has also visited the island nation of Vanuatu three times for research projects on very different topics: maternal child health and outcomes. chronic diseases, health disparities between the different islands and community stress following an evacuation caused by the volcano.
Although ticks are her main focus at the moment at Bassett, she has also worked on other projects including the Lifejackets for Lobstermen initiative, which aims to mitigate the risk of drowning in a dangerous industry. To that end, Roome and his colleagues visited coastal communities in Maine and Massachusetts to collect data and find ways to convince lobster fishers to adopt safety measures. By offering a 50% discount, they were able to deliver 1,000 life jackets to workers.
“That’s why I love this area, because there is so much you can do,” she said.
Many people may not realize that Lyme is not the only tick-borne disease in the North East; anaplasmosis is also on the increase, including in the southern part. Symptoms include high fevers, lack of appetite, and muscle pain, and the disease can, in rare cases, lead to death.
Roome is currently setting up an anaplasmosis study with a cohort of farmers in southern Vermont. Research in Europe suggests that farmers are at a higher risk than even foresters of contracting tick-borne diseases, she said.
“For the record, many of the farmers we work with have told us they have huge tick issues,” she said. “We want to see what the baseline is for the tick population on farms, and what we can do to mitigate that risk and make these industries safer for them.”
Both treated with the antibiotic doxycycline, anaplasmosis, and Lyme are also prevented in the same way: by frequent tick checks, wearing light-colored clothing and insect repellant, among other measures. But getting people to adopt these measures can be difficult, in part because ticks are tiny and easy to ignore.
In fact, people most often take preventive measures after they or a loved one contract a disease transmitted by ticks. In other words, they prevent the second infection but not the first – although this is still important because people do not develop immunity after infection.
It’s a dynamic similar in some ways to the coronavirus. In addition to the biological agent itself, the spread of tick-borne diseases and the coronavirus is linked to cultural and social factors, Roome noted. Another shared reality is the emergence of conspiracy theories, which are tied to the way people receive and disseminate information.
The coronavirus pandemic is particularly interesting because it is the first time that the public has followed the scientific process: from the initial discovery of the infectious agent to the long and complex process of determining how to treat and prevent its spread. As new evidence emerges, protocols change, often to the confusion of the general public.
Take masks, for example. Initially, the public was not advised to start wearing masks as initial data indicated that wearing the mask would not have a significant impact on the spread. When the data arrived to prove the contrary, the wearing of the mask became encouraged, even compulsory.
“It’s confusing for people with no scientific background, which makes sense because it seems like you’re changing your mind,” Roome explained. “But really, it’s the scientific process; you track the data, and as new data becomes available, you get new information. It’s interesting to follow from an anthropological point of view.