Under Our Skin, directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson–and shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary–is a disturbing and encompassing look at Lyme disease, and our current health care system, which is ill-equipted to deal with the disease. Caused by a bacteria similar to syphilis and carried by ticks, Lyme disease cases are increasing annually and spreading across the globe with, according the filmmakers, possibly hundreds of thousands infected each year. Patients often develop chronic symptoms ranging from exhaustion and pain to severe neurological disorders and dementia; the majority are misdiagnosed and mistreated. They are told their symptoms are in their heads or that they have other illnesses ranging from fibromyalgia to MS and ALS.
At the center of this human catastrophe are science and medical politics. In 2006, as Wilson was making Under Our Skin, the Infectious Disease Society of America published guidelines for the treatment of Lyme disease that refused to acknowledge chronic and long term Lyme disease. The filmmakers discovered eleven out of fourteen IDSA authors on the Lyme disease guidelines committee (or their employers) make money from the guidelines as currently written. Their guidelines claim that Lyme disease can be treated with a two-to-four week course of antibiotics, and that post-Lyme syndrome is an auto-immune or psychosomatic disorder.
The patients, many of whom were treated by Lyme-literate doctors whose practices are affected by the IDSA guidelines, tell a different story: pain and neurological disorders, miscarriages and fetal transmission of Lyme–their lives destroyed until they begin the aggressive and controversial treatments, which insurance companies, backed by the IDSA guidelines, refuse to cover. Lyme-literate doctors often are sanctioned; many close their practices to avoid the fate of Dr. Joseph Jemsek who successfully treated thousands of Lyme disease patients before his license was suspended by the North Carolina Medical Board. The sanctioning allowed Blue Cross/Blue Shield to sue for one hundred million dollars to recoup insurance payments for long term Lyme treatments.
Under Our Skin shines light on the science of Lyme, contributing environmental factors, health care policies, and the very real faces of those affected by the disease: 12-year old Marlena, a ballerina who loses control over her limbs; Mandy a marine animal trainer at Sea World who spends seven years suffering from Lyme until Dr. Jemsek puts her on a 2 year course of antibiotics; Major League baseball player Ben Petrick who is misdiagnosed with ALS (Lou Gerhig’s disease); Elise Brady-Moe who suffers a series of Lyme-involved miscarriages; Jared Shea who is born with Lyme disease contracted in utero.