Lyme Disease Could Be a Game Changer in the 2016 Election

Mitt Romney was chastised in the last election for campaigning around Lyme disease in Virginia by reporters like Michael Specter at The New Yorker. But Specter was then bombarded with “millions of pieces of hate mail” and told NPR host Terry Gross that, in his many years of writing controversial articles, he’d never received a response like that. As Specter learned, Lyme disease is a major issue.

Although adding Lyme disease to his platform did not lead to a win for Romney in Virginia, it could be a game changer for candidates in the 2016 election. The problem with Romney was that he only campaigned around Lyme disease in one state and he simply wasn’t a strong enough candidate to win anyway. But that does not mean that Lyme is not a significant issue for a large number of constituents.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted through the bite of a tick. It can cause debilitating symptoms such as severe weakness and fatigue, cardiac issues and neurological problems resembling Alzheimer’s, ALS and multiple sclerosis. Rates of Lyme disease have skyrocketed in recent years worldwide. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced an increase in estimated Lyme disease cases in the United States from 30,000 per year to 300,000 annually. Rates of Lyme far out number rates of HIV in the United States by sixfold. Recent health surveys conducted by the CDC found that 0.5 percent of those polled said, “I suffer from chronic Lyme disease,” suggesting 1.5 million people.

Ninety-six percent of all reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States come from 14 states, most of which have historically been blue (all voted for Obama in the last election):

  • Connecticut (7 electoral votes)

  • Delaware (3)

  • Maine (4)

  • Maryland (10)

  • Massachusetts (11)

  • Minnesota (10)

  • New Hampshire (4)

  • New Jersey (14)

  • New York (29)

  • Pennsylvania (20)

  • Rhode Island (4)

  • Vermont (3)

  • Virginia (13)

  • Wisconsin (10)

Collectively, this amounts to 142 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Four out of the 14 are battleground states: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.

New Hampshire voted Democrat and Republican five times each in the last 10 elections. It also has some of the highest rates of Lyme disease in the nation. North Hampton resident Lia Gormley says that everyone in her community feels that they have Lyme disease, and that a candidate promising to address the Lyme problem would make a difference to her. “For me, it’s alarming, because I’ve seen one woman with chronic Lyme disease and there are days she can’t get out of bed. All things being equal, if a candidate said they would deal with the Lyme problem that would sway me.”

Pennsylvania has the highest rates of Lyme disease in the United States, with Lyme occurring in all 67 counties. Some strategists feel that Pennsylvania could emerge as a key battleground state in this election, and the fact that the Democrats are holding their party convention in Philadelphia implicitly acknowledges that. Republicans may be gaining ground in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as the population over 50 – who tend to vote Republican – comprises a large percentage of eligible voters: Forty-six percent in Pennsylvania and 44 percent in Wisconsin.

While the demographics of people suffering from “post-treatment” or “chronic Lyme disease” have not been clearly defined, recent CDC health surveys found that they tend to be non-white (53 percent), male (63 percent), or younger. The average age of chronic Lyme patients was 30 years old, with 58 percent reporting that they were unemployed. Other preliminary studies have found that women have higher rates of chronic Lyme disease, with a 7:1 ratio of those suffering from a fibromyalgia-like syndrome post-treatment (widespread musculoskeletal pain). Johns Hopkins researcher John Aucott, MD, theorizes that women with Lyme disease may be incorrectly diagnosed as having fibromyalgia, which accounts for less reported cases in women. Children and those who spend more time outdoors are also high risk groups. Therefore, a candidate promising to address the Lyme epidemic may entice non-whites, men, women, parents and younger voters in these states to come out and vote.

Despite the fact that Lyme disease is the most reported vectorborne disease in the United States, there is currently no national action plan to combat this public health crisis. While there are many illnesses that afflict large numbers of people, what makes Lyme unique is that “chronic Lyme disease” has not been recognized as a medical condition. Some have called Lyme the most misunderstood and politicized illness since AIDS. The illness has been the topic of much controversy as the status quo thinking has been that all cases can be cured with two to four weeks of antibiotics, while many patients and health care professionals insist that theinfection can persist. With increasing numbers of patients unable to obtain insurance coverage for long-term treatment and out of work due to debilitating symptoms, direct and indirect costs of Lyme disease amount to billions of dollars each year. Lyme disease advocates have been relentlessly protesting the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) the past few of years, demanding that they change the Lyme disease diagnostic and treatment guidelines. Last year, activists held a nationwide protest of The New York Times, calling on more media coverage of the Lyme disease pandemic. As Michael Specter can attest, there are a lot of enraged patients who want change.

For either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidates, adding Lyme disease to their stump speech could garner much needed votes in tightly held races in the primaries and in swing states in the general election.