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Are secret US living weapons alive in our countryside?

PETER FROST discovers the US’s dirty tricks brigade may even be affecting your country walks

IN MY quarter of a century writing for and editing Britain’s biggest-circulation outdoor magazine, I became very familiar with Lyme disease.

Once a year, in spring, just as the bracken started to uncurl its most beautiful fiddleheads, I would remind our half a million readers about the dangers of this nasty, sometimes fatal, tick-spread disease.

Over those 25 years the incidence of Lyme disease seemed to get bigger every year but nobody knew why or even if this was because people like me were simply making country walkers more aware of the risks and symptoms.

Now reports from the US suggest a far more terrifying scenario. The US House of Representatives has called for an investigation into whether the spread of Lyme disease had its roots in a Pentagon experiment in undercover war research, including using Lyme-impregnated ticks as weapons. 
 
The US House of Representatives has just passed an amendment that instructs the defence department’s inspector general to conduct a review of whether the US “experimented with ticks and other insects regarding use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975.”

Lest you are worried that Donald Trump may shout “Fake news!” or even “Send the ticks home!” perhaps I need to point out that the amendment was proposed by Chris Smith, a New Jersey congressman. Smith is a Republican — that’s Trump’s party — the ones who Donald will tell you in a tweet  aren’t socialists, un-American or treasonous like those evil Democrats are.  

The review would have to assess the scope of the experiment and “whether any ticks or insects used in such experiment were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design.”

The amendment would add to a wider defence spending bill which has still to be passed in total.

However Smith’s amendment shines new light on US military dirty tricks. In this case it seems that significant research had been done at US government laboratories to turn ticks and other insects into biological weapons.

Kris Newby, science writer and former Lyme sufferer, has raised questions about the origins of the disease, which affects 400,000 US citizens each year, in a new book published in May this year.

The book Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons cites the discoverer of the Lyme pathogen, Willy Burgdorfer, as saying that the Lyme epidemic was a military experiment that had gone wrong.

Burgdorfer, who died in 2014, worked as a biological weapons researcher for the US military where he bred fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, and infected them with human disease germs.

The book says there were programmes to drop infected tick weapons and other bugs from the air. The US also released uninfected but marked bugs in residential areas to trace how they spread. 

He suggests that such a scheme could have gone awry and led to the eruption of Lyme disease in the US in the 1960s.

When I and many others protested at the gates of those East of England US air bases during the Vietnam war we knew about horrifying chemical weapons like the defoliant napalm, various nerve gases and other unspeakable weapons of warfare and we also and worried about the nuclear bombs we knew some of the planes were carrying. 

Perhaps we should also have been concerned about those tiny eight-legged troops fighting for Uncle Sam.  

So what is Lyme disease and how might it affect you? It is actually a bacterial infection that can be spread to humans by infected ticks. It is usually easy to treat but only if it’s diagnosed early.

For many people the early symptom of Lyme disease is a circular red skin rash around a tick bite.

This rash can appear as long as three months after being bitten by a tick and usually lasts for several weeks. Most rashes however appear within the first four weeks. The rash can look like a bull’s-eye on a dartboard with red skin and the edges slightly raised.

Not everyone with Lyme disease gets the rash. Some people also have flu-like symptoms in the early stages, such as a high temperature, feeling hot and shivery or headaches and muscle and joint pain. Tiredness and loss of energy can be another sympton.

Most tick bites are harmless as only a small number of ticks are infected with the Lyme disease bacteria. It is still important to be aware of ticks and to safely remove them as soon as possible, just in case.

Tick bites aren’t always painful. You may not notice a tick unless you see it on your skin. It is a good idea to check your skin and your children’s or pets’ skin after being outdoors.

If you find a tick still using its large powerful mouth to hang on, use fine-tipped tweezers or a special tick-removal tool. You can buy these from some pharmacies, vets and pet shops.

Use the tweezers or special tool to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Slowly pull upwards, taking care not to squeeze or crush the tick. Dispose of it when you’ve removed it. Then clean the bite with antiseptic or soap and water.

Remember the risk of getting ill is low. You don’t need to do anything else unless you become unwell. If you do then see your GP. 

Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose. It has similar symptoms to other conditions and there is not always an obvious rash. Two types of blood test are available to help confirm or rule out Lyme disease. However, these tests are not always reliable in early stages of the disease.

If your GP thinks you might have Lyme disease, they’ll prescribe a three-week course of antibiotics. A few people with severe symptoms will be referred to a specialist in hospital for injections of antibiotics.

Most people with Lyme disease get better after antibiotic treatment. This can take months for some people, but the symptoms should improve over time.

Be careful, there are many websites offering tests and treatment for Lyme disease, some are really dodgy and not supported by any scientific evidence. Speak to your doctor for advice before buying tests or treatment online.

The best advice is to avoid getting bitten. Always cover your skin while walking outdoors and tuck trousers into your socks. Use insect repellent on your clothes and skin — products containing DEET are best. Stick to paths whenever possible and avoid brushing plants, especially bracken.

If you wear light-coloured clothing ticks will be easier to spot and brush off. Always check thoroughly for ticks when you get home.

So whether those ticks are just normally susceptible to Lyme or a horrible throwback to the US’s diabolical weapons research, watch out for them and don’t let them stop you enjoying walking in our green and pleasant land.

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