Fossils show Lyme disease older than humankind

Fossils show Lyme disease older than humankind »Play Video
George Poinar Jr.

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Lyme disease has been around a lot longer than previously believed.

"A lot of people thought, 'Wow, this is something, kind of a new disease that just suddenly arose and maybe evolved into forms parasitic to humans, but it was around for much longer," said George Poinar Jr., professor emeritus at Oregon State.

Examining a 20 million-year-old tick encased in amber, Poinar discovered the tiny parasite had a spirochete-like bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

"I think in the old days you had, you know, achy joints and various types of problems," Poinar said. "Headaches, neck aches, things like that  - and I bet that a lot of those were caused by undiagnosed Lyme disease."

Even after the discovery of Lyme disease, West Coast doctors wouldn't test for Lyme disease because it was initally thought to be mainly an East Coast issue.

"Sometimes they just weren't testing because they weren't thinking it was in this area," said Charlie Fautin with the Benton County Health Department. "Now that the awareness is a little higher, so it's hard to discern whether there's an increase in disease and tick or whether it's just more people looking for it, so we're finding it and it's always been there."

When it comes to human history, Lyme disease appears to have been around longer than humans.

Poinar, the first to discover both malaria and Lyme disease in fossil form, said he believes there are more contemporary diseases that have been around much longer than we realize.

"I have no doubt that most of the pathogens that affect humans throughout the world are ancient," he said.