John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of Phones 4u has called on the Government to join him in researching Lyme disease, claiming the illness is massively underdiagnosed and could be affecting many tens of thousands of people in the UK.
Mr Caudwell’s plea came a week after he revealed that he and four other members of his family had contracted the illness, which is widely believed to be caught by being bitten by a tiny tick carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium.
Mr Caudwell also revealed today that his son Rufus, 20, who has suffered years of mental health problems because of the disease, is now so severely ill that he has within the last three days started suffering episodes of psychosis and was “fighting for his life”.
It took about ten years before Rufus was diagnosed in February. Mr Caudwell was only diagnosed two weeks ago, after suffering headaches and periods of “a complete lack of energy” which he had initially thought were caused by catching a virus about four years ago.
His ex-wife Kathryn McFarlane, and his daughters Rebekah, 35, and Rhiannon, 27, have also tested positive for the disease within the last two months.
The coincidence of five members of his family catching the same illness has led Mr Caudwell to suspect that Lyme disease – which can cross into the central nervous system – might be caused by other mechanisms in addition to a bite from ticks which feed on mammals including deer.
Mr Caudwell said circumstantial evidence had led him to suspect that a whole host of chronic conditions, including ME and Parkinson’s disease might be linked to Lyme disease.
His comments, however, appear to go against much current medical thinking – the Government body Public Health England told The Independent: “There is no scientific evidence to support the suggestion that Lyme disease is caused by anything other than ticks. There is no scientific evidence that Lyme disease causes ME, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.”
But Mr Caudwell insisted that one American Lyme disease specialist has stated that “he’s never had a single patient with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis who didn’t test positive for the Borrelia bacterium.”
Mr Caudwell added: “ME could also easily be a symptom of Lyme Disease. Lyme disease wreaks havoc with the body. It can affect the immune system. I am not saying that Lyme disease has been proved to cause or induce these illnesses. We don’t know for sure. That’s why the research needs to be done.”
He said that if the research could link the cause of such chronic conditions to Lyme disease – which if caught early can easily be treated with a simple course of antibiotics – “then it may be the most massive breakthrough in healthcare since the introduction of antibiotics.”
Mr Caudwell urged the Government to commission a relatively cheap study involving about 50 GPs testing patients, including those with ME, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, for Lyme disease “when there is any chance whatsoever that they might have it.”
The result might prove his suspicion that officials were “massively underestimating” when they suggested that there were 2,000-3,000 new cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales every year. But, said Mr Caudwell, the research might show the true extent and nature of Lyme disease and “help the many tens of thousands of sufferers in the UK who are undiagnosed and untreated.
“If I am right, I am on the path to helping tens of thousands of people, and to saving the NHS millions of pounds, in terms of people staying in hospital and seeing consultants about illnesses that are actually caused by Lyme disease or Lyme-induced.”
The effect of Lyme disease on his son, he said, had been “horrific.”
“He was the most confident, outgoing, charismatic young man, and then, at the age of nearly 11, he started to have panic attacks and anxiety. He couldn’t face the world. Within a year he was pretty much bedroom-bound.
“He has had ten years of his life completely destroyed. It has devastated his family. I tried everything to help, but for so long we had no inkling that Lyme disease might have been the cause – and we still don’t have a clue what caused any of us to get the disease.”
He added: “Rufus is now in danger of his life. The disease is attacking him much more aggressively. He has lost 3.5 stone in three months.
“It is attacking his brain more and more every day. He is suffering even worse than ever. In the last three days it has gone into his brain in such a way as to cause psychosis. He was more lucid yesterday and today, but the psychosis did at one point cause him to think that he was at fault for his condition, not the bacteria.”
“You could never ever be consoled about something like this,” added Mr Caudwell, who sold Phones 4u for £1.4 billion in 2006, “But I do have the wealth to make a difference, not just for my family, but thousands of families around the UK.”
A spokesman for Public Health England said: “Public Health England is beginning research into Lyme disease to investigate better diagnostic tests.
“GPs in areas where Lyme disease is common are very familiar with the condition and treat it readily. Public Health England is working with Lyme Disease Action and the Department of Health to raise awareness of Lyme disease across the country.”