Ticks are swarming, carrying myriad diseases such as Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever and making people ill. And, as one congressman believes, these ticks came from secret Pentagon experiments to turn ticks into biological weapons.
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., is so concerned about an alleged tick-bioweapon project that he led an effort to pass an amendment ordering the Defense Department to investigate it. Specifically, the amendment orders the department's inspector general to determine whether government scientists experimented with bioweapons - specifically in ticks - and whether those arachnids ended up making their way out of the labs and into the public between the 1950s and the 1970s.
Citing a rise in Lyme disease cases, Smith asked whether there "was any accidental release anywhere or at any time of any of the diseased ticks."
Of course, there are many natural reasons that Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses are on the rise.
For one, as development near areas with wildlife that carry ticks increases, the number of such disease cases also goes up. "Suburban development in these areas has increased the spread of these germs because people, ticks, deer, and tick hosts such as mice and chipmunks are in close contact," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, a warmer climate is more favorable for disease-carrying insects and arachnids. As climate change leads to longer summers and warmer nights, "conditions might become more hospitable for many carriers of vector-borne diseases," the CDC wrote.
Smith told The Washington Post he hopes the investigation will better inform what he called a "culture of denial" and that he wants more information about the disease to help those who are sick or may become sick.
"I just wanted to do it with a profound sense of public interest," Smith said of the amendment.
Smith cited a book, "Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons" by Kris Newby, to say government research weaponized ticks in Maryland and New York. The book includes interviews with Willy Burgdorfer, who is credited with discovering the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Smith calls Burgdorfer a biological weapon researcher. But Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at University of Minnesota, said "there's just no credible evidence," behind the stories about weaponizing ticks or Burgdorfer's involvement with such a project.
Osterholm, who knew and worked with Burgdorfer, said the conspiracy theories surrounding the scientist have no basis in fact. The disease wasn't even truly discovered and named until 1977, when two women in Old Lyme, Connecticut, reported symptoms of arthritis. Thus, the name of the disease emerged. It was Burgdorfer who was able to identify the bacteria that caused it.
"This is again another one of those unfortunate situations where the science fiction of these issues" overwhelms the truth, Osterholm told The Washington Post.
As deer population in the Northeast increased after the Great Depression, Osterholm said the instances of Lyme disease also went up. He said that it's likely Lyme disease had long existed in deer and that as they increased in population, they spread more Lyme.
Osterholm said that ticks would be an ineffective biological weapon and that there are much more effective options.
The idea that the government does experiments on animals and insects is not so far-fetched; the Pentagon has studied whether insects could carry viruses to make genetic modifications to crops, and the Navy trained combat dolphins for finding bombs underwater.
About 300,000 people in the U.S. contract Lyme disease each year, with a wide range of symptoms that are, unfortunately, not specific to Lyme, which makes it difficult to diagnose. Fever, dizziness, muscle and joint pain, and headaches are potential effects of Lyme disease, according to the CDC.
A telltale sign, a rash at the bite location that looks like a target, isn't always visible, and tick bites can be on parts of the body that are difficult to see, such as under hair.
This article was written by Morgan Krakow, a reporter for The Washington Post.