Bartonella: the epidemic you’ve never heard of

05.30.2012 |

As if you needed another reason to hate fleas.

This is the first installment of a three-part series on Bartonella, bacteria that is being linked to a wide variety of ailments – many of them chronic, and some of them life-threatening. In part one, I’ll talk about what Bartonella is, and its growing recognition as a potentially very 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.

Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt is an expert on infectious diseases and a doctor of veterinary medicine.  He also finds himself on the front lines of a quiet but growing epidemic. Bartonella is a bacteria most commonly associated with cat scratch disease, which until recently was thought to be a short-lived (or self-limiting, in medical lingo) infection. Bartonella isn’t new – doctors have known about cat scratch disease for almost a century – but it’s only in the past couple of decades that researchers like Breitschwerdt have started to discover exactly how pervasive Bartonella infecton is in animals and people.

“The main problem with determining whether Bartonella is involved with a particular illness has traditionally been the difficulty of culturing the bacteria from patient samples,” Breitschwerdt says. Some of his earliest work was simply dedicated to finding a better way to identify the presence of the bacteria in an animal or human. It’s fairly easy to find evidence of Bartonella in “reservoir hosts,” or the animals that harbor the bacteria: currently, researchers use a combination of serology and PCR (which stands for polymerase chain reaction) to identify Bartonella’s bacterial DNA in samples.

Finding it in potentially infected humans, however, takes a bit more specialized testing. Breitschwerdt had to develop a specialized growth media in order to be able to culture the bacteria in numbers great enough to detect using a standard PCR test.

Once Breitschwerdt and other researchers had the proper tools to look for evidence of the bacteria they found that Bartonella is literally all around us.

“We have found species of Bartonella in mammals ranging from mice to sheep to sea otters to dolphins,” he says. “There are at least 30 different species that we know of right now, and 13 of those have been found to infect human beings.”

Of course, the likelihood of a human contracting Bartonella from a sea otter is low. But several Bartonella species have found a home much closer to home – in domestic dogs, cats, cows, and rodents which can act as bacterial reservoirs. Fleas, lice – and possibly ticks – also act as repositories for different strains of the bacteria.

Okay, so these bacteria can be found everywhere. People have been getting cat scratch disease for a long time, and it’s usually not that big a deal. What’s changed?

One answer is that our ability to find and diagnose Bartonella infection in animals and humans has led to its identification in patients with a host of “chronic illnesses” that the medical community previously hadn’t been able to attribute to a specific cause. Whether these bacteria cause these chronic illnesses is yet to be determined.

In part two of this series we’ll look at what kinds of illnesses Bartonella is associated with, and who is most at risk of infection.



9 Responses to “Bartonella: the epidemic you’ve never heard of”

  1. Debra O'Malley says:

    Looking forward to Part II.

  2. [...] 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 [...]

  3. [...] 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 [...]

  4. Jay says:

    Where there’s Bartonella – there’s almost always Borrelia (the gatekeeper if you will)

    Keep up the good work

  5. Kim Via says:

    Thank you Dr. B and NCSU!

  6. [...] of veterinary internal medicine Ed Breitschwerdt has spent the last couple of decades working with Bartonella, bacteria historically associated with “cat scratch disease.” Bartonella is increasingly [...]

  7. Laura says:

    There is so much more to this story than bartonella. I have been in treatment for this disease, as well as for lyme disease and babesia, over the last 11 months. Five years ago I was bite by a tick in northern California and was seen by many different doctors for a host of health problems that included failing eye sight, heart palpitations, arthritis in both knee, memory loss, air hunger, and many other symptoms. Until seeing a lyme literature doctor in Thousand Oaks, CA, I was never tested for any of these diseases. There is much controversy over the testing and treatment of tick born diseases. Many doctors have not been trained to recognize the signs or preform testing that sends back negative results. Although the diseases are not contiguous, babesia is transmitted through blood banks where there is no screening currently available. These diseases are now thought to be epidemic levels, while the general public remains ignorant, and thousands who are sick go broke from the cost of treatment. It is a very sad situation.

  8. George Chem says:

    I think my sister caught Bartonella from her cat, she is single and she has a plethora of cats at her disposal.

  9. […] of veterinary internal medicine Ed Breitschwerdt has spent the last couple of decades working with Bartonella, bacteria historically associated with “cat scratch disease.” Bartonella is increasingly […]

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