Chronic Lyme conspiracy theories spread to Turkey

Turkish media spread a fake disease

The media play a significant role in spreading false and misleading claims about Lyme disease. Media misinformation has resulted in unnecessary “Lyme anxiety” and numerous false Lyme diagnoses.

The well-meaning attempts by journalists to raise awareness of patients claiming to suffer from “Chronic Lyme Disease” has helped to spread the fake disease.

Given that chronic Lyme conspiracy theories have spread to many countries, the false narrative of “chronic Lyme” would seem to be a compelling one.

In Australia, there is no Lyme disease, but there are “Lyme literate” quacks and thousands of chronic Lyme believers. In a review of comments on a government inquiry, 10% of respondents had self-diagnosed after viewing a media report on Australian Lyme disease.

Istanbul skyline

A single quack is largely responsible

Using machine translation, LymeScience performed a brief review in November 2018 of Turkish media.

It appears that Barbaros Çetin—a biology professor—is responsible for much of the hysteria. One article called him “Turkey’s Lyme Man”.

The “Lyme Man” has been spreading many lies about Lyme disease. An article featuring Çetin absurdly claimed:

  • 7-10 million people in Turkey have Lyme disease.
  • 25 million people in America have Lyme disease.  (No, CDC estimates ~300,000 cases annually but it’s a curable infection regardless.)
  • Lyme disease mimics 350 diseases. (No, Lyme can be distinguished using well-established methods.)
  • Lyme disease is spread via fleas and mosquitos. (No, it is only spread by Ixodes ticks.)
  • Lyme disease is a “silent killer within us” (No, it almost never kills and is easy to detect.)

Even crazier, Çetin reportedly called Lyme disease a bigger threat than AIDS. AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, which is still incurable.

Çetin founded Turkey’s first Lyme disease association. Like Lyme conspiracy theorist groups in other countries, Çetin’s group pretends to be a real medical organization.

It’s incredible how a single conspiracy theorist can be responsible for so much chaos. This phenomenon, whereby a single quack manufactures an outbreak of chronic Lyme disease, has been seen in other regions.

In France, an analysis of media coverage of Lyme disease noted the prominence of Christian Perronne—an ILADS-associated quack. Perronne had been featured in 22 of the 49 articles (45%) about Lyme disease since 2014 even though his beliefs fly in the face of settled science.

 

Scientists investigate questionable claims

In a 2018 conference abstract entitled “Lyme in Turkey: underestimated or over-diagnosed?”, scientists in Turkey noted media reports claiming millions of patients with Lyme disease (also known as Lyme borreliosis, LB) in Turkey.

To determine whether the claims of millions of Lyme cases in Turkey were plausible, the Turkish scientists performed an exhaustive search of the scientific literature between 1990 and 2017.

Lyme disease can be contracted in Turkey, but it is not common, and of course it is treatable. The scientists found 6.7% tested ticks harbored Borrelia burgdoferi.

The literature review also found case reports of Lyme borreliosis and found some people test positive for Lyme antibodies. Only 77 Lyme cases were identified, of which 34 cases could be confirmed.

The Turkish scientists concluded:

  • We could not find evidence that would support the exaggerated number of cases presented by media.
  • Diagnosing Lyme Borreliosis is more problematic than its treatment.
  • Non-adherence to international guidelines and overdiagnosis of Lyme Borreliosis by clinicians is the major problem.

Resources

ECCMID 2018 Conference abstract: Lyme in Turkey: underestimated or over-diagnosed?

Istanbul skyline photo cc-2.0 Ben Morlok