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The disease seemed to come from nowhere, jumping from a vector to people. Symptoms could be mild or devastating, apparently lasting for years in some cases. Rumors swirled as to its origins: Did it escape from a government lab?
While the narrative is similar, this infectious agent wasn’t the coronavirus. It was Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium transmitted to humans by the black-legged tick and the cause of Lyme disease.
The complex intersection between human culture and infectious disease fascinates Binghamton University alumna Amanda Roome, now a research scientist with Bassett Healthcare Network. She primarily focuses on tick-borne diseases in agricultural and forestry workers, a trajectory she began during her research under Anthropology Professor Ralph Garruto, director of Binghamton University’s Tick-Borne Disease Research Center.
You may not consider infectious diseases when it comes to anthropology, which typically focuses at the population level; chronic diseases, with their connection to health and lifestyle, might seem a more obvious connection, Roome acknowledged. Lyme, however, is a prime example of how a disease can interact with social and political forces.
Although first discovered in the 1970s, Lyme has been around for a very long time; the bacterium that causes it has been discovered in a tick trapped in amber, and in an old mouse specimen in a museum, for example. That hasn’t prevented the rise of conspiracy theories, which claim that the disease was invented in a government lab on Plum Island.
Today, controversy lingers over what is often called post-treatment or chronic Lyme. The very existence of that condition is in dispute, as well as how it can be treated.
“You have your social implications and your political implications, and you’ve also got your environmental implications. It’s really interesting, all of the different things that come into play,” she said. “I like biomedical anthropology because it looks at the big picture. It’s not as simple as ‘biological agent meets human,’ as we have seen through the past year; there are a lot of social influences that direct how different diseases are experienced in different populations.”
A diverse field
Roome, who earned her bachelor’s in anthropology at the University of Hawaii, was initially drawn to the hands-on nature of Binghamton’s biomedical anthropology program. She earned her master’s in 2014, followed by her doctorate in anthropology in 2019.
Garruto was her advisor, and her experiences with him ultimately prepared her well for her job at Bassett, she said.
“He really pushes his students to get involved with what they are interested in,” she said.
For his part, Garruto appreciated the opportunity to work with Roome, who was a stand-out student in both the MS and PhD programs.
“Her versatility, resourcefulness and ability to engage with community members are critical to understanding Lyme and other tick-borne diseases and, overall, in understanding how human behavior and the environment impact health outcomes,” he said.
While ticks and the illnesses they transmit were a focus at Binghamton, Roome also went to the island nation of Vanuatu three times for research projects on far different topics: child maternal health and chronic disease outcomes, health disparities between different islands, and community stress following a volcano-prompted evacuation.
While ticks are her main focus right now at Bassett, she also has worked on other projects, including the Lifejackets for Lobstermen initiative, which seeks to mitigate the risk of drowning in a dangerous industry. To that end, Roome and her colleagues visited coastal communities in Maine and Massachusetts to gather data and devise ways of convincing lobstermen to adopt safety measures. By offering a 50 percent discount, they were able to deliver 1,000 lifejackets to workers.
“That’s why I love this field, because there’s just there’s so much that you can do,” she said.
Many people may not realize that Lyme isn’t the only tick-borne disease in the Northeast; anaplasmosis is also on the rise, including in the Southern Tier. Symptoms include high fevers, lack of appetite and muscle aches, and the illness can — in rare instances — lead to death.
Roome is currently setting up an anaplasmosis study with a cohort of farmers in southern Vermont. Research out of Europe suggests that farmers have a higher risk than even foresters of contracting tick-borne illnesses, she said.
“Anecdotally, a lot of farmers that we work with have told us they they’ve been having huge issues with ticks,” she said. “We want to see what baseline there is for the tick population on farms, and what we can do to mitigate that risk and make these industries safer for them.”
Both treated with the antibiotic doxycycline, anaplasmosis and Lyme are also prevented in the same way: by frequent tick checks, wearing light-colored clothing and insect repellant, among other measures. But getting people to adopt these measures can prove difficult, partly because ticks are tiny and easy to ignore.
In fact, people most often adopt the preventative measures after they or a loved one contract a tick-borne illness. In other words, they prevent second infections but not the first — although that’s still important because people don’t develop immunity after infection.
It’s a dynamic similar in some ways to the coronavirus. In addition to the biological agent itself, the spread of both tick-borne illnesses and the coronavirus are related to cultural and social factors, Roome noted. Another shared reality is the emergence of conspiracy theories, which is connected to how people receive and spread information.
The coronavirus pandemic is particularly interesting because this is the first time that the public has followed alongside the scientific process: from the initial discovery of the infectious agent to the long and complex process of determining how to treat and prevent its spread. As new evidence emerges, protocols change — often to the confusion of the general public.
Take masks, for instance. Initially, the public wasn’t advised to begin wearing masks because initial data indicated that mask-wearing wouldn’t make a significant impact as to spread. When data came in to prove otherwise, mask-wearing became encouraged or even required.
“That’s confusing to folks without a science background, which makes sense because it seems like you’re just changing your mind,” Roome explained. “But really, that’s the scientific process; you follow the data, and as new data becomes available, you get new information. It’s been interesting to follow from an anthropological perspective.”
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