Ticks, bacteria and parasites did little to arouse my enthusiasm as I headed to the 3rd Tick Bourne Diseases Conference in Sydney. I was pleasantly surprised by an intellectually stimulating and challenging line-up. The prospect of donning a bow tie proved only to be a minor highlight of the weekend.
The occasion presented the opportunity to meet health practitioners from around the world, engage with drug representatives, get lots of free stuff, and ultimately learn many perspectives on what proved to be a controversial issue.
That issue was that of Lyme disease. Far from being confined to the cosy borders of America, the controversy has manifestly made its home down under. While Lyme disease is being called an imagined disorder and patients are being referred for psychiatric help, others are claiming for it a place in objective reality. Medical science, as it turns out, is well and truly permeated by politics and ideologies of many colours.
I was also exposed to a new niche of pharmaceutical: “neutriceuticals” or specialized natural extracts designed to boost immune response to infection or promote recovery from its sequelae. As a product of the modern world, I was sceptical of the effect “natural” products are often advertised to have. It seems too obvious to mention that synthetic inventions will always beat food, nutritional support or anything “natural” for that matter. But as a lover of truth, I was compelled to give my view a thorough critique. The “synthetic” drugs we all know and trust are often more natural than we care to think: digoxin is an extract from foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); atropine from the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna); vinca alkaloids from the periwinkle plant (vinca rosea); salicylic acid from the willow tree (Salix alba). There was a bit of sneering from the medical students about the ridiculousness of using “natural” products to treat as serious a condition as Lyme disease. Perhaps a serving of humble pie should have rounded out the catering menu.
It was great to hear from the perspective of doctors working in rural localities, all the way out in Western Australia and as far as New Zealand and San Diego, all places where Lyme disease has well and truly made a home.
Whether everyone should believe in everything that was said at the conference is up for debate, but it certainly is not a topic that ought to be swept under the rug. If I have learnt anything, it’s usually the issue most readily swept under the rug that ought to be given the hearing it deserves, again and again. Why? Because you never know when new evidence might have emerged. I hope medical practitioners will always seek to base their practices in evidence, not tradition. It is conferences like this that continually take us a little step closer.
By Kamil Wegrecki
MBBS at University of Notre Dame, Sydney, 2nd year