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Lyme Disease is Older Than Humanity

May 29, 2014 05:08 PM EDT

Ticks fossilized in amber have revealed that Lyme disease has been around far longer than the human race, reaching back as far as 15 million years ago, a new study suggests.

The study, which was published in the journal Historical Biology, details how researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) discovered ancient evidence of Borealis, a type of bacteria that causes Lyme disease to this day.

Lyme disease affects an estimated 25,000 people in the United States each year, with an additional 5,000 to 10,000 probable cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2012, it was the 7th most common Nationally Notifiable disease, causing symptoms such as fever, headache, rash, joint pain and exhaustion that can last months or even years if not treated within the first few weeks of infection.

The disease was recognized for what it was only about 40 years ago, and was commonly misdiagnosed, according to OSU.

However, a group of four fossilized ticks uncovered from amber in the Dominican Republic were found to contain a large population of fossilized spirochete-like cells. According to the study, these cells boast an extreme resemblance with the present day Borrelia bacteria species, namely the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that cause modern cases of Lyme disease.

According an OSU press release, study author George Poinar, Jr. also found 100-million-year-old cells that resemble the bacterial spread of Rocky Mountain Fever, a disease that he now theorizes affected even the dinosaurs.

If diseases like Rocky Mountain fever and Lyme disease were prevalent even millions of years ago, Poinar explained, it's very likely that the earliest of humans frequently suffered from these diseases as well, especially as they continued to explore the Earth.

According to Poinar, the oldest recorded case of human Lyme disease was found in a 5,300-year-old mummy who had been embedded in a glacier in the Italian Alps.

"Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease," Poinar said. "He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess."

Now, Poinar points out, it is clear that the Iceman was very far from being the first Lyme disease victim.

The study was published for early release in Historical Biology on April 22.

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