The Sexual Transmission of Lyme Disease

Just when you thought Lyme disease couldn't get any more controversial, recent wrangling over whether or not a Lyme infection can be spread via sexual contact has opened up a whole new front on what seems like a vast and ever expanding battleground.

Researchers Raphael B. Stricker and Marianne J. Middelveen made the case for possible sexual transmission in an editorial that was published in the journal Expert Review of Anti-Infective Therapy last year, stating the reasons why they believe such transmission is possible. They're not the first researchers to float this hypothesis, but they are getting more attention from the media than virtually any scientists before them. This is good news.

Studies into the transmission of Lyme disease via any method other than tick-bites are few and far between. Sexual transmission is no exception. Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Lyme disease can be spread this way, peer reviewed studies attempting to document sexual transmission have so far fallen short of establishing the kind of irrefutable proof health authorities need in order to change their thinking on the subject.

Indeed, the US Centers for Disease Control strongly refutes any suggestion that sexual transmission has been proven and the Public Health Agency of Canada finds no compelling reason to believe Lyme disease can be transmitted through sexual contact at this time.

Note that I say "at this time". There hasn't been enough research done in this area to switch the default position of health authorities away from their collective opinion that Lyme disease cannot be sexually transmitted. The limited number of studies that have been carried out have produced conflicting results that have made it easy for anyone who holds strong opinions on either side of the divide to pick apart any study that yields results they don't agree with. And at the rate at which research is currently being conducted (and ethical issues that make human-to-human transmission difficult to study), it's unlikely that health authorities will be changing their tune any time soon.

All of which means what exactly?

The debate over the possible sexual transmission of Lyme disease has garnered a lot of media attention in recent years and has raised serious questions in the minds of many Canadians who were not aware of the issue before. With any luck, this will translate into more funding becoming available to study not just the sexual transmission of Lyme disease, but also other possible avenues for transmission beyond tick-bites as well. Many Canadians have expressed concern that the bacteria can be transmitted through gestation or breast feeding, for instance, and have been dissatisfied with official responses that they feel are backed up by precious little data. They'd be right about that. There is precious little data in those areas, something that funding and initiative will be needed to change.

Media coverage and mounting public interest can speed things along. With a rapidly increasing number of Canadians being diagnosed with Lyme disease each year - many of whom do not recall a tick-bite - it does seem like the time has arrived for health authorities to put away their unsatisfying assurances and start coming up with some fact-based evidence that Canadians can place their faith in. The pressure to do so isn't likely to wain in the coming years.

Picture of Vanessa FarnsworthVanessa Farnsworth is a British Columbia-based writer with an in-depth knowledge of Lyme disease. Her work has been published in magazines & journals across Canada and in the United States.
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