Bartonella is a bacteria transmitted by fleas, ticks, animals, even spiders, but few people know about it. New methods for diagnosing it are showing it’s more common than previously thought.
By Stephanie Soucheray
An N.C. State professor says Bartonella infection is one of the most important untold medical stories.
Ed Breitschwerdt, a professor of veterinary sciences at North Carolina State University, keeps waiting for the tipping point. For the last 30 years, Breitschwerdt has been studying Bartonella, a genus of bacteria found in animals, ticks and humans.
“It’s frustrating,” said Breitschwerdt. “I believed we would hit a tipping point two years ago with this.”
Laura Hopper’s tipping point came in 2006, when she was 15 years old. The Raleigh teen lost her peripheral vision. She next began to suffer bouts of joint and muscle pain and numbness in her hands. Then came the headaches, memory loss and hallucinations.
“As a mother, it’s so hard to watch your child have all these symptoms,” said Maria Hopper. “It was a couple years of going to all kinds of doctors.”
But no neurologist, rheumatologist or psychiatrist could explain all of Laura’s symptoms. And it wasn’t until 2008, when the Hoppers read a news article about Bartonella and Breitschwerdt’s work, that a lightbulb went off in their heads.
Though people have known of cat scratch disease – the most public of the human diseases caused by Bartonella infection – for more than 100 years, Breitschwerdt said he’s convinced that Bartonella is the stealth cause of many neurological, inflammatory and chronic diseases in humans.
And, unlike Lyme disease, another tick-borne illness that can cause an array of distressing symptoms, Bartonella is right in the backyard of most North Carolinians.
“It’s a medically important bacteria in animals and humans in the state. If you took every stray cat along the coast of North Carolina, three quarters of them would have Bartonella,” said Breitschwerdt. “That’s because the bacteria is commonly transmitted to animals by fleas.”
He said that, historically, vets have considered common cat flea a nuisance but have under-appreciated it as a disease vector. For several years, Breitschwerdt has seen all sorts of animals and mites, ticks, fleas and even spiders test positive for Bartonella.
“Animals are the primary reservoir for the Bartonella species,” he said.
Breitschwerdt has worked with the One Health Commission, a collective that looks at the links between environmental, human and animal health. Though his professional and personal life has been guided by his care for animals, his most recent work is geared towards detecting and treating Bartonella infection in humans.
The recovery process
The Hoppers contacted Breitschwerdt at a fortunate time: He was developing new human diagnostic method for Bartonella. Laura tested positive, and after three courses of months-long antibiotic treatments, her symptoms have all but disappeared.
“By the end of the first cycle [of antibiotics], the feeling in her hands came back,” said Maria. “By the end of the second cycle, hallucinations stopped.” Though Laura still suffers some muscle pain, she considers herself 80 to 90 percent healed.
If the bacteria is positively detected, treating Bartonella infection is a daunting task for even otherwise healthy patients
“You cannot float humans or horses in enough Doxycycline to kill this bacteria,” said Breitschwerdt. Treatment, such as Laura’s, requires weeks of multi-antibiotic therapies.
Laura was also lucky in that she tested positive for Bartonella immediately.
A patient infected can have a negative test on a Monday and positive test by Wednesday.
“People are tested several times, but Bartonella can hide in the body,” Breitschwerdt said.
That’s because an animal scratch or bug bite (or a vet’s needle stick) results in Bartonella infection in red blood cells and endothelial cells, which line blood vessels. The bacteria can “hide out” for many infectious cycles, causing symptoms and eventually affecting every organ system in the body.
Most people can clear Bartonella from their bloodstreams effectively. But among the subset of people who can’t eliminate the bacteria, help in mainstream medicine will be difficult to come by.
“I often talk with veterinarians who have these vague complaints – who say they’ve been sick for weeks or months,” said Breitschwerdt.
Many of the vets receive diagnoses of Lyme disease, chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, or are sent to a psychiatrist and told their symptoms are untreated depression. But Breitschwerdt cautions them to get tested for Bartonella.
Breitschwerdt has ventured into industry with Galaxy Diagnostics, a company he founded to offer Bartonella testing kits to doctors. The company launched into human testing two years ago, and has received orders from 300 doctors across the country.
At this stage, said Amanda Elam, Galaxy’s president, the company’s goal is to educate people about Bartonella.
“We’re dong continuing medical education courses, working with people in public health and doing education with veterinarians,” she said. “I’d really like the medical community to keep an open mind about this.”
While Breitschwerdt waits for the public tipping point for Bartonella, he said he too is focused on disease education.
“It takes 10 years before something added to the medical textbooks gets widely spread in practice,” he said. “We’re working on changing those textbooks.”