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Bartonella: The Epidemic You’ve Never Heard Of, Part 2

Fleas: they don't have any positive qualities.

This is the second installment of a three-part series on Bartonella, bacteria that are being linked to a wide variety of ailments – many of them chronic, and some of them life-threatening. In part one, we talked about what Bartonella is, and its growing recognition as a potentially wide-ranging and serious infectious disease. Part two will cover the wide array of transmission vectors and illnesses associated with the bacteria, and part three will review the current state of the research and recommendations for the future.

There is an increasing body of research linking the Bartonella bacteria to a number of chronic ailments ranging from migraines to seizures to rheumatoid illnesses to endocarditis, which is the inflammation of the valves of the heart.

The way Bartonella works in your body goes something like this:  Once a human is infected by an animal bite or scratch, or by an arthropod – like a flea or tick – bite, Bartonella takes up residence in red blood cells and endothelial cells – the cells that line blood vessels. This serves as a great hiding place for the bacteria, which can then cause cycles of repeated intravascular infection (known as cyclic bacteremia), ultimately affecting multiple organs and organ systems. The ability of these bacteria to hide within cells makes diagnosis and treatment tricky.

The medical evidence seems to support the anecdotal evidence that first drew Ed Breitschwerdt’s interest in the topic:  veterinarians suffering from chronic illnesses that were often diagnosed as Lyme disease or chronic fatigue, or in one extreme case, multiple sclerosis. A persistent bacterial infection can result in many of these same symptoms.

Okay, so the evidence suggests that this little bug can cause a lot of problems.  Who’s most at risk, and what’s the treatment?

Veterinarians and people with high rates of exposure to farm animals, domestic animals and arthropods like fleas and lice are the most at risk, according to Breitschwerdt. “These individuals should take care to avoid arthropod bites, arthropod feces, animal bites or scratches, and direct contact with bodily fluids from sick animals,” he says. Additionally, Breitschwerdt has published evidence that Bartonella infection can be transmitted from mothers to infants at birth.

Antimicrobial drugs that can enter the cell are used most frequently for treating Bartonella infection in humans, but the infection has not been eliminated in all patients treated with antibiotics that should be effective. There is increasing evidence of treatment failures in people with normal immune systems, and it is not uncommon to see relapses in immunocompromised patients who were treated for six weeks or longer.

In the final part of this series, we’ll look at the current state of the research on Bartonella, and recommendations from researchers about best practices and next steps in educating the public.