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Is Romney Using Lyme Disease to Win Swing State Votes?

In Virginia's Loudoun County, the candidate waded into a contentious debate over Lyme disease. But in his bid to court voters, Romney may be playing politics with public health.

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 5:03 AM EDT

The mailers arrived in late September, courtesy of the Romney campaign—glossy and full color, with a photo of a smiling doctor easing the concerns of a middle-aged white couple. Inside was a promise: "Romney and Ryan will do more to fight the spread of Lyme disease." It rattled off a list of steps the Republican ticket would take to thwart a "massive epidemic," and promised to protect doctors from malpractice cases.

The initial response from political observers was bemusement, followed by derision. As the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein put it, "We may look back at this as epitomizing the smallness of the Romney campaign."

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But from his perch in the exurbs of Northern Virginia, Michael Farris knew better. Romney wasn't just microtargeting about microbes; he'd taken a side in one of the most contentious debates in American medicine—a heated dispute complete with antitrust investigations, congressional hearings, and allegations of criminal malpractice on both sides. "I've worked in AIDS and other infectious diseases," says Dr. Gary Wormser, lead author of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's 2006 guidelines on Lyme. "I've never seen anything like Lyme disease."

Few people have done more to fan those flames than Farris, a homeschooling advocate, constitutional lawyer, and evangelical power broker who founded the arch-conservative Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, 12 years ago to prepare Christian homeschoolers for careers in politics.

"In Western Loudoun County, it's almost 100 percent of families that have been touched by Lyme disease," Farris says when we meet in his office in early October, offering up a figure he concedes is based on speculation. "Who's gonna win Virginia? Loudoun's gonna be the bellwether. You change 5, 6, 7 percent of the vote, that's a big deal in the presidential race."

If Farris is right, the GOP may have struck electoral gold with the unlikeliest of strategies. But in his rush to court swing state voters, is Romney playing politics with public health? (The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

"I've worked in AIDS and other infectious diseases," says Dr. Gary Wormser. "I've never seen anything like Lyme disease."

Named for the Connecticut town where it was first identified 35 years ago, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted to humans by black-and-red, sesame-seed-size deer ticks that embed themselves in your skin.

Most cases of Lyme disease are detected early—often by a tell-tale bull's-eye-shaped rash—and treated by antibiotics with little cost or damage. It is not—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA, a leading professional organization), and just about every researcher who's studied it—chronic by nature. But in some cases, as the CDC notes, people who have been diagnosed with Lyme disease will continue to experience Lyme-like symptoms after they've been cured. There's no one perfect explanation for this, but experts attribute it to a combination of residual damage and other unrelated maladies. It so happens that many of the most notable Lyme symptoms, such as joint pain, paralysis, and fatigue, are also symptoms of much more common ailments like depression and arthritis.

But advocates for patients who experience long-term symptoms aren't buying it. They believe that those lingering symptoms are, in fact, signs of something more malignant—"chronic Lyme." What's more, because the Lyme disease tests produce a high percentage of false negatives in the early stages (they approach 100 percent accuracy after about four weeks), they believe thousands of patients are going untreated for years. These Lyme activists, along with a small group of doctors that bill themselves as "Lyme literate," believe the way to treat these cases is through costly long-term antibiotics, which aren't covered by insurance companies. In the eyes of the medical community, this form of treatment is at best ineffective and at worst deadly.

Skeptics believe there's an obvious reason why the CDC and the IDSA are willfully ignoring evidence of chronic Lyme.

"As in most things, it's about money," Farris contends. "They're protecting their backsides. If they admit they've been doing the wrong thing for these patients all these years, I think they're afraid of major malpractice judgments against them."

Farris' emergence as a full-fledged Lyme crusader represents a second act of sorts. A veteran of the Reagan-era Moral Majority, he cut his teeth as a homeschooling activist, founding the Home School Legal Defense Association in 1983.

With Farris' help, homeschooling went from a fringe concept to a viable alternative for more than a million mostly conservative Christian families—big enough for its own ivory tower. In 2000, he opened Patrick Henry in an elegant brick-and-white-columned colonial building on a 40-acre plot across from a shopping center. He brought evangelical luminaries like John Ashcroft and Left Behind coauthor Tim LaHaye to campus to speak, and implemented a strict code of conduct that prohibits drinking, smoking, and homosexual conduct—all with the goal of grooming a "Joshua Generation" to lead the nation into the promised land.

He discovered Lyme disease in 2009. Leaning forward intensely in his office, an enormous elk's head mounted on the wall behind him ("hunting now is a patriotic duty of every loyal Loudoun person," he declares), a wood-carved presidential seal over his left shoulder (a gift from a former federal police officer), and two mounted quills from his first and only Supreme Court oral argument (in 1986) over his right, Farris explains how he became a Lyme activist.

"All my life I've fought for the underdogs in politics," he says. "Homeschoolers were underdogs being beaten up by the teachers unions and the establishment—I just fight for the underdogs, it's what I do. And so I realized that these people were getting hammered by the political process, because it was not science that was behind these decisions; it was politics."

It started close to home. For 22 years, Farris' wife, Vickie, had periodically battled fatigue and aches and pains. With a healthy diet and a routine of four-mile walks, she'd been able to cope. "But about three years ago, she crashed," Farris says. Vickie tested positive for Lyme. So, eventually, did 7 of the couple's 10 children, whom Farris speculates received the disease in utero—something the CDC says it has no evidence is even possible.

"We're in the northernmost county and we're being invaded by the damn Yankee ticks!" says Michael Farris.

These days, Farris sees Lyme everywhere he looks. RAs at Patrick Henry get a briefing on the subject from Farris, and he sometimes informally diagnoses students himself. After a member of the school's celebrated moot court team told him she couldn't eat the cookies he'd bought them because she'd developed a gluten intolerance, he immediately told her to get tested, noting that gluten intolerance may be a symptom of Lyme. (The student did, in fact, have Lyme, according to Farris, although the IDSA says there's no evidence the two are connected.)

Two years ago, he distributed a survey to every member of the Home School Legal Defense Fund's insurance plan, asking if they had been clinically diagnosed with Lyme disease. Seventeen percent of about 250 respondents said yes—never mind that the CDC confirmed just 756 cases of Lyme in the entire state last year, an incidence rate of 0.01 percent. "It's the best study that's been done in the whole country on it, which is remarkably horrible, because it wasn't much of a study," Farris says.

He sees Loudoun's "epidemic" as a product of zoning, hunting restrictions, and basic geography. As he puts it, "We're in the northernmost county and we're being invaded by the damn Yankee ticks!" To Farris, the real-world consequences of maintaining the status quo are impossible to ignore.

"A little girl in Lovettsville had her brain explode and she died when doctors following the IDSA guidelines gave her steroids. Steroids is like giving jet fuel to the Lyme bacteria. And her brain exploded!"

But experts aren't buying it. Wormser describes the Lovettsville scenario as implausible, noting that steroids (to be used sparingly) are designed to relieve pressure on the brain. Durland Fish, a professor of epidemiology at Yale who, like Wormser, analogizes Lyme skeptics to members of the Flat Earth Society, says the real malpractice is committed by doctors who ignore the established treatment methods. "Nobody's died of Lyme disease. They've died of Lyme disease treatments," he says. (A 2010 study led by the CDC examined 114 deaths that had been attributed to Lyme disease, and found that only 1 could be confirmed.)

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