Swamp Boy: A story about Bartonella and mental illness

“Swamp Boy” tells the tale of a bright 14-year-old boy who suddenly hears demonic voices and experiences sudden-onset psychosis—He thinks he’s turning into Swamp Thing, a green, plant-covered monster. The story follows his parent’s hellish journey into the medical system as they struggle to save their oldest son from permanent residency in a psychiatric ward. His psychiatrists are convinced he has schizophrenia—until his determined father solves the mystery behind his delusions, offering the family hope and a cure.

Spoiler alert: For the full dramatic effect, read the full story here first.

This story provides readers with a window into the suffering, stigma, and barriers that this family faced in looking for reasons behind their son’s sudden-onset mental illness. It also illuminates the fault lines in our current medical system, especially the ease with which doctors prescribe symptom-masking drugs over the difficult process of exploring possible infectious causes behind a mystery illness.

At the root of the teen’s medical problems was Bartonella henselae, the tiny stealth bacterium that causes cat scratch disease and disseminated Bartonellosis.

This story, two years in the making, couldn’t have been written without the family who made the courageous decision to share their painful experience for the benefit of others. And a sincere thanks to the team of experts who served as technical advisors—Drs. Edward Breitschwerdt, Rosalie Greenberg, Robert Mozayeni, and Allen Lewis—all co-authors on the original case study behind the story, as well as draft reviewers from Invisible’s “Team GOAT”—Robert Bransfield, MD; Charlotte Mao, MD, MPH; Shari O’Connor, PharmD, MBA; Amanda Elam, PhD, Nev Zubccevik, DO/Invisible’s CMO, and Laura Lott, MBA/Invisible’s CEO.

Team GOAT was a winning team in Invisible International’s 2020 hackathon, which focused on education and awareness projects for tick-borne illness. This team of scientists, clinicians, and writers meets weekly to share research, discuss emerging science, and write articles and case studies about tick- and vector-borne diseases.

Read Swamp Boy here: https://nowthisnews.com/swamp-boy

To learn more about Bartonella history, diagnosis, and treatments, watch the medical education courses on Invisible International’s Montecalvo Tick-borne Disease Education Platform here: https://learn.invisible.international

To help fund more stories, hackathons, and medical education courses like this, go to https://invisible.international/give/


Free CME course on neurological infections of Bartonella

Invisible International has released a new course on neurological and neuropsychiatric manifestations of Bartonella, a family of stealth bacteria best known for causing cat scratch disease and trench fever. This course discusses neurological presentations, diagnostic strategies, and emerging evidence showing a possible association between Bartonella and schizophrenia.

In the last few years, there has been a growing body of knowledge on the Bartonella family of bacteria. In this course, Edward Breitschwerdt, DVM, a leading expert on Bartonellosis in mammals, delivers the latest research and paints a disturbing picture of what can go wrong if a neurological Bartonella infection runs rampant in an immunocompromised or immunocompetent patient.

In humans, a Bartonella henselae infection (aka cat scratch disease) typically starts with a fever and swelling or lesions at the wound site, appearing three to 10 days after a bite or scratch from an infected mammal. Swollen lymph nodes show up one to two weeks later, and half of patients report headaches, lack of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, and, occasionally, a sore throat.

Five to 20 percent of those infected with cat scratch disease (i.e. an acute Bartonella henselae infection) exhibit severe symptoms, according to national insurance claims data published in the July 2020 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases. These complications can involve the eyes, heart, liver, spleen, skin, musculoskeletal system and, the focus of this course, the nervous system.

Dr. Breitschwerdt believes that Bartonella is an underdiagnosed driver of many neurologic and neuropsychiatric diseases of unknown cause. He calls his fellow veterinarian workers “the canaries in the coal mine” for this emerging threat, citing a study that showed that 28% of the study’s veterinarian worker subjects were infected with the bacteria, based upon the detection of Bartonella DNA in their blood. He also reminds physicians to ask sick patients about their exposure to animals, bites and scratches, flea infestations and exposures to other known or suspected vectors for Bartonella transmission. Bartonella often occurs in families, infecting both pets and their human companions.

One of the most intriguing parts of this new course is the discussion of a recent study generated with his University of North Carolina research collaborators. The study found that people with schizophrenia were more likely than healthy volunteers to have Bartonella DNA in their bloodstream. In this study, 11 of 17 schizophrenia patients (65 percent, compared with 13 healthy controls) tested positive for Bartonella using the new “droplet digital enrichment blood culture PCR test” that his research team developed. Because this study was halted early due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a larger study is being planned at this time.

Edward Breitschwerdt, DVM, the course’s author, is the Melanie S. Steele professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He is also an adjunct professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and a diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM). As a leading expert on bartonellosis, he directs the Intracellular Pathogens Research Laboratory in the Institute for Comparative Medicine and co-directs the Vector Borne Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at NCSU. This course is currently in review for CME credit by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This project is funded by the Montecalvo Platform for Tick-Borne Illness Education, through Invisible International, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation dedicated to reducing the suffering associated with invisible illnesses and social marginalization through innovation, education, and data-driven change projects. You can sign up to receive news and updates at: https://invisible.international/mission

Links to Bartonella courses: History of a hidden pandemic, Vectors and other modes of transmission, Reservoir hosts: Bats, cats, dogs, mice and men, Comparative infectious disease causation, Disease expression and host immunity, and Diagnosis of Bartonella species infections.