Bodywork

Is Lyme Disease an STD?

A recent study suggests that Lyme disease might be sexually transmitted. Just how seriously should you take the findings?

A black-legged tick, which carries Lyme and other diseases.     Photo: David Scharf/Getty

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If last month’s abstract claiming Lyme disease could be sexually transmitted has you panicking—or feeling vindicated—don’t. Though there’s plenty of controversy around the disease and its treatment, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of sexual transmission and of this abstract in particular.

Published in the January issue of The Journal of Investigative Medicine, the abstract reported that vaginal secretions of all women in the study with Lyme disease tested positive for the bacterium that causes the disease, while the semen of about half of the men with Lyme disease tested positive. A married couple in the study also had identical strains of the disease in their secretions.

The authors claimed that this data suggests the disease could in fact be sexually transmitted.

But there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the science, according to Paul Lantos, a faculty member at Duke University Hospital in pediatric infectious diseases, and the lead author of a panel that reviewed the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Lyme disease treatment guidelines.  

“A lot of basic things we would expect to see in a sexually transmitted disease have not been observed,” he says. “Maybe it really is retrievable from semen and vaginal secretions. I don’t have a problem with that idea. The question is can you actually acquire if you come into contact with the organism in that form?”

If the disease could be transmitted sexually, Lantos says, there should be a huge occurrence among those most likely to contract STDs—adolescents and young adults. Instead, Lyme disease is most common among children and the middle aged.

The areas where the disease occurs should also have more overlap with other STDs like herpes and gonorrhea. But instead of a high occurrence in urban centers and in the South, Lyme disease is most common in the Northeast and rural areas.

STDs like HIV are also pretty easy to trace back to an infected partner. “Why don’t we see couples passing it to one another,” he says. “Why don’t we see a clear pattern where sexual partners are diagnosed with Lyme disease?”

What’s more, the abstract itself is just that—an abstract. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and without information about how many patients were involved, who they are, and whether they had been treated for the disease, it’s hard to take a critical look.

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