Lyme Disease on Plum Island: Fringe Conspiracy Theory or Government Cover-up?

By Smaranda Dumitru

As an animal disease center Plum Island has been the focus of many dark government conspiracies, from top secret biological weapon experimentation during the Cold War to the working ground for Nazi scientists recruited after World War II.

Perhaps scientific experimentation mixed with government classification is just a hotbed for saucy conspiracies, or maybe there is more to Plum Island than we suspect.

A more recent theory is that Lyme disease escaped from Plum Island, which may be the most plausible conspiracy theory yet. The theory went mainstream in 2004 with Michael C. Carroll’s book, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.

Plum Island is located off the coast of Long Island, New York. It was used as a military base during the Spanish-American war and in 1954 was turned into a government animal disease center.The center was established to study foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, a highly contagious disease that is rare in humans but can ravage farms and the livestock industry.

While the center was run by the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2002 during talks of selling the island it was transferred to the United States Department of Homeland Security.

The reason some believe Lyme disease escaped Plum Island is because the island is located just a few miles off the coast of Lyme, Connecticut, which is where the first outbreak of Lyme was observed in 1975. While scientists say that all animals on the island are killed to prevent the possible spread of diseases, conspiracy theorists argue that birds regularly fly between the island and the mainland and thus are able to spread any diseases they may pick up.

“I don’t know if Lyme came from Plum Island,” said April Ferguson*, who is a chief strategy officer for a Hudson Valley policy-oriented think tank, “but it’s weird that no one wants to talk about it, doctors are scared to treat and diagnose it, [and] the government doesn’t talk about it.”

Ferguson started considering a link between Lyme disease and Plum Island after she saw a press release describing how the Centers for Disease Control were closing a Texas A & M University biodefense lab due to outbreaks of Brucella and Coxiella burnetiiBrucella and Coxiella burnetii are both tick-borne bacterial pathogens. This led Ferguson to wonder about Plum Island. Both the lab at Plum Island and the one at Texas A&M are Biosafety Level 3 labs and study similar infectious diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza, and Rift Valley fever.

Ferguson  represents Lyme patients pro bono as an attorney. She considers the government’s attitude towards Lyme very strange. The number of cases jumped tenfold in one year, she pointed out, and insurance companies don’t cover antibiotics for Lyme, even though one can easily get antibiotics for any other condition. “Lyme disease is taboo and I don’t understand why,” she said.

Jennifer Reid who runs a Lyme Disease support group in Ridgefield, Connecticut, said that the connection between Lyme disease and Plum Island is an “interesting story.” It does not come up during her meetings, though. “People are focused on getting better. They are not looking for someone to blame,” Reid explained.  Reid blames climate change and deforestation for the influx of Lyme into suburban communities, including Lyme, Connecticut.

Reid said individuals may turn to conspiracy theories such as the one about Lyme disease and Plum Island when they are frustrated. “It’s very hard for people to understand why we haven’t made more progress,”  she said. “They want something to make sense. They don’t understand why it’s (Lyme disease) not taken more seriously and given more attention.”

Indeed, while the relationship between Lyme disease and Plum Island may not be real, what is evident is that Lyme disease leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

From diagnosis to funding and research, many who suffer from Lyme are frustrated, confused and angry at the general state of Lyme disease treatment. Perhaps turning to government coverups on secretive islands isn’t too crazy after all.

*April Ferguson’s name has been changed at her request.