After weeks of aches and fever, a woman in Sweden's north finally sought care for what turned out to be a case of meningitis. The condition causes inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, and is often deadly, yet the woman recovered after being given antibiotics.
But the doctors at the hospital were stumped. They couldn't find any signs that the usual causes of meningitis, like Lyme disease or the herpes virus, had sickened the woman.
The mystery remained unsolved until Kenneth Nilsson, Karin Elfving and Carl Påhlson decided to defrost samples taken from the woman and take another look. What they found is now being hailed as an important new scientific discovery: the bacteria Rickettsia helvetica, which is carried by ticks, caused the woman's sickness. The bacteria is nothing new; its existence is well-known. Yet it has been considered harmless—until now.
The Swedish scientists are the first in the world to link the bacteria to a case of meningitis. Related Rickettsia bacteria had been found to cause meningitis in other parts of the world, which gave the scientists the idea to see if its cousin Rickettsia helvetica really was as harmless as people thought. A sample of the woman's spinal fluid, which is connected to the brain and is normally completely sterile, was teeming with the bacteria.
Although Kenneth Nilsson and his colleagues have only found clear evidence of the connection in the one female patient, they are getting ready to research nearly 500 other tissue samples from patients with unknown causes of meningitis.
Nilsson told Uppsala Nya Tidning that he wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the bacteria are shown to have caused the brain inflammation in many of those cases.
Swedes suffer more than 150 and 400 cases of meningitis per year, many from bacteria carried from ticks, like Lyme disease. Thanks to the scientists, Rickettsia helvetica can now be added to that grim list.