Last week, a lot of political observers were scratching their heads after reports that the Romney campaign is sending direct mail to Virginia voters on, of all things, Lyme Disease. It looked like evidence of campaign micro-targeting reaching new levels of sophistication.
At first blush, the mailing doesn’t even make any sense. Romney/Ryan promises to combat Lyme Disease though “improved synergy”? What does that even mean? And what happens to those who contract the illness, but lack basic coverage after Romney/Ryan destroys the Affordable Care Act?
But it turns out, there’s more to it than that. Laura Helmuth explained over the weekend that there are niche conspiracy theorists on this issue in Virginia, and in classic dog-whistle fashion, Romney’s appealing to them by speaking their language.
Let’s play doctor. A patient comes to you with joint pain, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, poor attention, and mood swings. You might run a series of tests to rule out a persistent infection or other disorder. If your patient lives in a tick- and Lyme-disease-infested area, you would be wise to test for the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and, if detected, prescribe a course of antibiotics. But suppose the tests come back negative and there is little evidence that your patient was bitten by a tick or was infected with the Lyme disease bacterium. If you are a good doctor, and you are, you might explore a diagnosis of depression, a disease that afflicts almost 10 percent of the population at any given time.
If you are a doctor who believes that the CDC and NIH have misrepresented carefully vetted clinical trial data about the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease, however, you might diagnose your patient with chronic Lyme disease and prescribe an intensive, long-term, side-effect-laden, mega-dose of antibiotics.
And who would be the biggest supporter of your and your patient’s right to pursue a worth-testing-but-found-wanting treatment? Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
There is no doubt that tick-borne illnesses in Northern Virginia are a serious public-health issue, but the Romney mailing, and its promises of “improved synergy,” appears to be more political than medical. As Helmuth added, the direct mail seems to suggest, “Forget the science, just channel your legitimate fear of a dangerous disease and your misguided fear of the medical establishment into a vote for us.”
Helping drive the conspiracy theory is Michael Farris, a highly influential religious right activist and home-schooling advocate based in Virginia. Farris has no medical background, but he met privately with Romney in September to talk, among other things, “about Lyme disease.”