Film : "Under Our Skin:" A tick horror story
If Lyme Disease doesn't already scare you, the documentary "Under Our Skin" surely will. This is a film not to be missed. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society is screening it Saturday, June 14, at Vineyard Haven's Katharine Cornell Theatre.
Director Andy Abrahams Wilson, who was nominated for an Emmy, took a personal interest in the subject after his twin sister contracted the disease and suffered through a series of misdiagnoses before receiving treatment. While researching Lyme Disease for his film, Mr. Wilson visited the Island in 2005 to interview Vineyarders about their experience with it.
"Under Our Skin" offers an alarming look at Lyme Disease, not only in terms of its biology, but its political and economic dimensions. Discovered in the 1970s by eminent entomologist Willy Burgdorfer, the tiny Borrelia burgdorferi spirochete lurking in the deer tick is said to be similar to the microorganisms that cause syphilis. As such, it can attack the brain or heart when untreated, it can be passed to unborn children, and it can kill.
Like many documentaries, "Under Our Skin" consists in large part of interviews with people who have suffered from Lyme Disease. The catch is that most of them have contracted a chronic form of the illness that occurs when it goes undetected and/or untreated. Their symptoms are frightening, extreme and not representative of those among us who have suffered from and been treated successfully for tick bites with antibiotics.
The medical world does not officially recognize Lyme Disease in its chronic form, instead identifying it as readily diagnosed and cured with antibiotics. Nevertheless, director Wilson makes a strong case for the existence of chronic Lyme Disease.
As disturbing as its symptoms - which can include pain, profound fatigue, blurred vision, cognitive and neurological deficits, headaches, stiff necks and swollen joints - are the questions "Under Our Skin" raises about why health officials don't take Lyme Disease more seriously.
One interviewee, a former park ranger who had to quit his job because of Lyme, speculates that the combination of international jet travel, global warming and human encroachment on wildlife habitats has led to ecological changes that foster the growth of multiple bacteria in hosts like deer ticks.
Calling it one of the most misunderstood and controversial diseases of our time, the documentary argues that it is so difficult to diagnose that as many as 200,000 people may contract it annually - more than the numbers for AIDS, West Nile Virus and Avian Flu combined. The film interviews science writer Kris Newley, who says changes in government oversight during the 1980s have meant that researchers scramble to patent their findings and horde information to protect profits on diseases like Lyme rather than advance progress on it.
One scientist interviewed, who does research on the Lyme spirochete on his own time, examined Alzheimer's cadaver brains and found that seven out of ten carried the Lyme microorganism. Some doctors shown in the documentary lost their licenses in what is portrayed as a witch-hunt against those willing to treat chronic Lyme aggressively.
"Under Our Skin" suggests that economics motivates insurance companies to deny coverage to individuals being treated for chronic Lyme. Insurance companies, the film says, initiate most of the complaints against doctors willing to treat chronic Lyme, because they don't want to pay their insurees for treatment.
Just as disturbing is the claim that many of the doctors on the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) panel responsible for issuing guidelines for Lyme have serious conflicts of interest. These guidelines deny the existence of chronic Lyme. Since the release of the film, Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's antitrust investigation of the IDSA resulted in a review of the Lyme guidelines begun last month.
"Under Our Skin" raises a host of questions about Lyme that all Vineyarders should learn about, and the Martha's Vineyard Film Society has arranged for several members of the Vineyard health community to answer questions after the screening. While it's too bad that the film takes such an alarmist approach - one underlined by an intrusive music soundtrack - the seriousness of this epidemic may warrant alarm.
"Under Our Skin," Saturday, June 14, 8 pm. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for Film Society members.