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The Politics of Lyme Disease

There’s a renewed push in the U.S. Congress for legislation to strengthen the federal government’s activities on Lyme disease, now endemic in most of the United States.

Whether the drive can withstand pressure from the health insurance industry—which denies the existence of chronic Lyme disease and so avoids paying for it treatment—is an issue.

In the House of Representatives, Lee Zeldin of Shirley on Long Island—where many people have contracted Lyme disease with Zeldin a victim himself—is co-sponsoring two measures. They are the Tick-Borne Disease Research and Accountability and Transparency Act of 2015 and the 21st Century Cures Act.

Zeldin emphasizes that “I’m not only very well aware of how Lyme disease has affected the lives of many Long Islanders but I also had it.” He regards the bills as potentially a “key for the health of residents of Long Island.”

In the Senate, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, where Lyme disease is also widespread—indeed it’s named for the town in Connecticut from where Lyme disease was first identified—has reintroduced his bill that is now titled the Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, Research Act of 2015.

The legislation that overwhelmingly passed the House, and the Blumenthal bill, co-sponsored by both U.S. senators from New York, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are now in committee, to be amalgamated.

As attorney general of Connecticut, Blumenthal conducted an antitrust investigation into the “guidelines” for Lyme disease treatment of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). Adhered to by much of the medical system, they supported the health insurance position that chronic Lyme disease doesn’t exist and long-term antibiotic treatment isn’t necessary. The attorney general’s office found collusion.

As Blumenthal stated in 2008 after IDSA agreed to “reassess” its guidelines:

“This agreement vindicates my investigation—finding undisclosed financial interests and forcing a reassessment of IDSA guidelines. My office uncovered undisclosed financial interests held by several of the most powerful IDSA panelists. The IDSA’s guideline panel improperly ignored or minimized consideration of alternative medical opinion and evidence regarding chronic Lyme disease, potentially raising serious questions about whether the recommendations reflected all relevant science.”

The documentary “Under Our Skin,” winner of numerous film festival awards, also found collusion between the IDSA and health insurance industry—members of the IDSA panel on Lyme disease having financial connections to health insurance companies. It also related the stories of Lyme sufferers cured with long-term treatment and told of doctors who provided long-term Lyme care being severely punished by the medical authorities.

Andy Abrahams Wilson, producer and director of “Under Our Skin” and also a new updated documentary, “Under Our Skin 2: Emergence,” has said that despite the agreement with the attorney general, the IDSA “guidelines were not changed.” In the new documentary “we’re continuing to look at the—let’s call them—chronic Lyme denialists.”

As a U.S. senator since 2011, Blumenthal has tried to deal with the situation with legislation. In that year he first introduced his Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act.

His legislation states: “Although Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught early, the disease often goes undetected because it mimics other illnesses or may be misdiagnosed. Untreated, Lyme disease can lead to severe heart, neurological, and joint problems because the bacteria can affect many different organs and organ systems.”

Under his bill, a Tick-Borne Diseases Advisory Committee would be established to “coordinate all federal programs and activities related to Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases…Although Lyme disease accounts for 90 percent of all vector-borne diseases in the United States, the ticks that spread Lyme disease also spread other diseases, such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis.”

The committee would include members of “the scientific community representing the broad spectrum of viewpoints held within the scientific community related to Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.” Also, there’d be representatives of “tick-borne voluntary advocacy organizations,” Lyme patients or their relatives, and “representatives from state and local government health departments and local health professionals who investigate or treat patients with Lyme disease.”

Among its activities would be “development of sensitive and more accurate diagnostic tools and tests, including a direct detection test for Lyme disease,” expanding a “national uniform reporting system” for cases of Lyme disease, “creating a national monitoring system for tick populations,” fostering “increased public education” and “creation of a physician education program.” The committee would issue reports on its work each year.

As to the source of Lyme disease, Michael Carroll in his best-selling book, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, links Lyme disease to the federal government’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Plum Island is 10 miles from Old Lyme, Connecticut and a mile and a half off the North Fork of Long Island.

Carroll, an attorney, formerly a law firm associate of the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo, notes in his book that Lyme disease “suddenly surfaced in Old Lyme, Connecticut” in 1975 and cites years of experimentation before that with ticks on Plum Island and discusses the possibility of an accidental or purposeful release.

Lab 257 documents a Nazi connection to the original establishment by the U.S. Army of an animal disease laboratory on Plum Island. According to the book, Erich Traub, a scientist who worked for the Third Reich doing biological warfare, was the force behind its founding.

During World War II, “as lab chief of Insel Riems—a secret Nazi biological warfare laboratory on a crescent-shaped island in the Baltic Sea­—Traub worked directly for Adolph Hitler’s second-in-charge, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, on live germ trials,” relates Lab 257. The mission was to develop biological warfare to be directed against animals in the Soviet Union. This included infecting cattle and reindeer with foot-and-mouth disease. This became the mission, in a Cold War setting, at Plum Island.

And, states Lab 257, “The tick is the perfect germ vector which is why it has long been fancied as a germ weapon by early biowarriors from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan to the Soviet Union and the United States.”

“A source who worked on Plum Island in the 1950s,” the book says, “recalls that animal handlers and a scientist released ticks outdoors on the island. ‘They called him the Nazi scientist, when they came in, in 1951—they were inoculating these ticks.” Lab 257 goes on: “Dr. Traub’s World War II handiwork consisted of aerial virus sprays developed on Insel Riems and tested over occupied Russia, and of field work for Heinrich Himmler in Turkey. Indeed, his colleagues conducted bug trials by dropping live beetles from planes. An outdoor tick trial would have been de rigueur for Erich Traub.”

Traub was brought to the U.S. with the end of the war under Project Paperclip, a program under which Nazi scientists, such as Wernher von Braun, came to America.

“Traub’s detailed explanation of the secret operation on Insel Riems” given to officials at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the Army’s biological warfare headquarters, and to the CIA, “laid the groundwater for Fort Detrick’s offshore germ warfare animal disease lab on Plum Island. Traub was a founding father,” says Lab 257.

And Plum Island’s purpose, says the book, became what Insel Riems had been: to develop biological warfare to be directed against animals in the Soviet Union, ­with the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union having begun.

Lab 257, published in 2004, also tells of why suddenly the Plum Island laboratory was transferred from the Army to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1954: ­the Pentagon became concerned about having to feed millions of people in the Soviet Union if its food animals were destroyed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff “found that a war with the U.S.S.R. would best be fought with conventional and nuclear means, and biological warfare against humans, ­not against food animals,” says the book. “Destroying the food supply meant having to feed millions of starving Russians after winning a war.”

Also making a link between Plum Island and Lyme disease is an earlier book, The Belarus Secret: The Nazi Connection in America. First published in 1982, it was written by John Loftus, also an attorney. Loftus was formerly with the Office of Special Investigations of the U.S. Department of Justice set up to expose Nazi war crimes and unearth Nazis hiding in the United States.

Given top-secret clearance to review sealed files, Loftus found a trove of information on America’s postwar recruiting of Nazis. He also exposed the Nazi past of former Austrian president and U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and his involvement as an officer in a German Army unit that committed atrocities during the war. Waldheim subsequently faded from the international scene.

In The Belarus Secret, Loftus tells of “the records of the Nazi germ warfare scientists who came to America. They experimented with poison ticks dropped from planes to spread rare diseases. I have received some information suggesting that the U.S. tested some of these poison ticks on the Plum Island artillery range off the coast of Connecticut during the early 1950’s. . . Most of the germ warfare records have been shredded, but there is a top secret U.S. document confirming that ‘clandestine attacks on crops and animals’ took place at this time.”

Loftus points to “the hypothesis that the poison ticks are the source of the Lyme disease spirochete, and that migrating waterfowl were the vectors that carried the ticks from Plum Island all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.”

Loftus adds: “Sooner or later the whole truth will come out, but probably not in my lifetime.”

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is still in operation. However, the federal government is currently seeking to close it and have its activities transferred to a new laboratory it seeks to build in Kansas which it has named the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Also, following the 9/11 terrorist attack, the government transferred control of Plum Island and the center on it from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security.

Officials on Plum Island have, since the departure of the Army, described the center’s work as conducting studies of foreign animal diseases and, as to biological warfare, have said that only “defensive” biological warfare research is done there—linked to diseases that might be introduced by an enemy to kill U.S. livestock.

The federal government wants Plum Island’s operations transferred to the new proposed laboratory in Kansas because the Plum Island center is not a “Biosafety Level 4” facility and also for security reasons.

Biosafety Level 4 is the top level of security in biological research. It is designated for work with the most dangerous agents—those that can cause fatal diseases in humans and, say the rules of the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control, “for which there are no vaccines or treatments.” The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is to be a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory.

Also, there has been concern by the government about security itself for the 840-acre island out in the sea, exposed, amid busy marine traffic lanes, and vulnerable to attack, the Government Accountability Office has stated. In a 2003 report, the GAO said there is a substantial risk that “an adversary might try to steal pathogens” from the center and use them against people or animals in the United States. GAO noted that a camel pox strain researched at the center could be converted into “an agent as threatening as smallpox,” and the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus studied there could be “developed into a human biowarfare agent.”

An attack on Plum Island is not a vaguely hypothetical risk.

Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaeda operative, was convicted by a jury in Manhattan in 2010 of attempted murder and is now serving 86 years in federal prison in a case with a Plum Island connection. Found with her when she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 were poisonous chemicals and notes about a “mass-casualty attack” in the U.S. and a list of targets: Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building—and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. A Pakistani, she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the U.S.

Lab 257 tells of a 2002 raid by the U.S. of the Afghanistan residence of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a nuclear physicist also from Pakistan and involved with al-Qaeda, in which a “dossier” was discovered containing “information on a place in New York called the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.”

Meanwhile, if the Lyme disease legislation is enacted, new and vital federal government action could be coming—on a health scourge that the U.S. government might be responsible for causing.

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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