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Pamela Weintraub
Pamela Weintraub

Chimp attack: Can Lyme explain it? Forbes wants to know.

Was the chimp attack in Connecticut caused by Lyme? Forbes wants to know.

Sad news from the Cleveland Clinic that the woman attacked by a chimp in Stamford, Connecticut last month may have suffered not just disfigurement, but brain damage.

Some people have pointed to Lyme disease as a provocation for the chilling attack. Living in my old stomping ground, Stamford, CT, in a suburban family home, the chimp named Travis was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Given that Stamford is at ground zero for the disease, it's not a surprise.

One publication,, has questioned whether chimps could even get Lyme disease. Taking a snarky tone about the disease itself in a post called "The Chimp Attack-Lyme Disease Connection," the pub posed a question to the public on its website.

"One angle that didn't make that much sense was that the chimpanzee was supposedly being treated for Lyme Disease. Forbes has written about the over-diagnosis of Lyme Disease in humans.We'd like to know: Can an ape get Lyme Disease? Could the chimp's owner have been giving him medicine that contributed to the attack?"

Working in the building on the 11th floor of 90 Fifth Avenue in my role as senior editor for the award-winning science magazine, Discover, I was surprised when the snide post floated up from the bowels of the building below.

Disappointed patients, picking up on Forbe's condescension and history of skepticism toward them, responded online:

Said one poster:

I had Lyme Disease AND I ATTACKED TOO - out of pain, fatigue and frustration. My boyfriend, thankfully, understood and stuck by me anyway. He put up with a lot of things I never would have and deserves to be commended AS DO ALL OF US who know about, fight to educate others, and SUFFER through the horrors of this disease. How many genes do we have in common with chimps, again???

And another:

Of course apes can get Lyme disease. So can other animals and humans.

Were my colleagues at 90 Fifth laughing at this patient response? I hope not.

Can Lyme disease, a brain infection sometimes associated with anxiety and very rarely, rage reactions, explain the tragedy? In my opinion, the answer is probably not. Chimps are wild animals and male adolescent chimps, in particular, are known to defend their turf and impose their will violently.

In fact, responding to the situation, Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General of Connecticut, this week proposed a new law aimed at banning primates,alligators, kangaroos, wolverines and other types of wild and potentially dangerous animals from Connecticut private homes and yards. In announcing the bill, Blumenthal said, "We are playing Russian roulette in our homes because we have put dangerous animals in them." The story was carried in Connecticut newspapers on March 7.

There's no question that patients with neurological Lyme disease may commonly suffer numbness in extremities, memory loss and confusion. Fatigue is commonly reported in the group. Just read the scientific literature, and you will find that anxiety, depression, and OCD have all been triggered by Lyme. And yes, relatively rare violent reactions have been reported in the peer review.

But it would be wrong if the Connecticut chimp attack caused anyone to fear Lyme disease patients, or to think their infection might send them on killer rampages like the rage-infected zombies in Danny Boyle's post-apocalyptic thriller, 28 Days Later. Instead of looking to Lyme disease to explain these events, we would all be better served by exploring issues of animal rights: Especially the call for keeping wild animals where they belong, in the wild and out of our neighborhoods and homes.

As to whether a chimp can get Lyme disease, here's a shout-out from the science mag on 11 to my curious Forbes colleagues on the lower ten. Yes, you guessed it, I went not to the public but to some real scientists to help me out on this issue. Here's what they have to say:

"Borrelia [the Lyme spirochete] can infect chimps, but they would have to be bitten by an infected tick --their habitat does not overlap with that of the tick so very unlikely in the wild. Primates have been inoculated [with Borrelia] in studies in the lab." -- Eugene Davidson, Ph.D., former head of microbiology at Georgetown University for 15 years, who has studied Lyme disease in non-human primates,

"I don't know why a chimp couldn't get Lyme disease. Mario Phillip and Andy Pachner have infected other nonhuman primates. But those were experimentally induced. How would a chimp emcounter the ticks that transmit it? Was the chimp allowed to run free outside in an area with a risk of infected ticks?" --Alan Barbour, M.D., director of the Pacific-Southwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of California Irvine.

Note to the public: No need to fear Lyme patients. You're more likely find the sickest of them at home, too fatigued to get to work, in too much pain to care for their children or visit with friends. You might find them in bed.

All in all, it's not too cool to make a joke out of a tragedy: The tragedy of a women whose face was ripped off by a chimp and the tragedy of thousands of patients, often the butt of the kind of sarcasm found in Forbes --those with a disease diagnosed too late and treated too inadequately to achieve a total cure. Not PC to make fun of the sick and injured. Not funny Forbes, not funny at all. And while I am at it: not journalism.

Pamela Weintraub is the author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic and senior editor at Discover Magazine.

About the Author
Pamela Weintraub

Pamela Weintraub is the Executive Editor at Discover magazine and author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic.

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