Lyme disease experts fear disease explosion
Published Wednesday, June 20, 2012 3:12PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 21, 2012 8:56AM EDT
A warming climate has health officials worried that tick populations are already spreading, bringing with them the germs that can lead to Lyme disease.
Dr. Robbin Lindsay, a research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada who specializes in zoonotic diseases, says the populations of the blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease (sometimes called the deer tick) are growing.
"I myself have been studying these ticks for over 20 years and we have seen a tremendous change in the range and expansion of these ticks," he tells CTV News from Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory.
He says when he started his PhD in 1989, there was only one known population of blacklegged ticks and that was in southern Ontario. Now, there are established population sin southeastern Quebec, southern and eastern Ontario, southeastern Manitoba and parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
"We have been tracking the expansion of this tick and it is quite dramatic," Lindsay says.
Many of these ticks carry the nasty bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi that can cause Lyme disease.
Lindsay says it appears that while ticks are spreading, the prevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi is still low. In some areas of Canada between 10 and 50 per cent of blacklegged ticks are now carrying Lyme bacteria.
"So the risk of Lyme disease is reasonably low right now. But as the ticks get more established, the infection rate will go up," says Lindsay.
He says that there are currently only about 150 cases confirmed each year in Canada, but "that is going to change."
He urges Canadians to take more precautions when they're in and around wooded areas to protect themselves from getting bit. That means wearing long pants with the legs tucked into boots or socks, and closed shoes or boots.
"The other thing we suggest is to do a tick check after a walk," says Lindsay. "If you see them on your clothing and you see them on your body… promptly remove those ticks."
Tick bites are usually painless; in fact, most people do not know that they have been bitten until symptoms of Lyme disease start to appear. They include fever, fatigue, even heart problems and neurological disorders.
One of the hallmarks of a Lyme infection is an expanding red rash at the site of tick bite that often looks like a bull's eye or some other configuration, says Lindsay.
"But sadly, only 70 to 80 per cent of people who have Lyme disease get a rash, so you might not get a rash," says Lindsay.
Green party leader Elizabeth May is planning to introduce a private member's bill in Parliament calling for a Canadian strategy on Lyme disease.
"A lot of Canadians are oblivious to the fact that getting bitten by a tick can ruin their lives," she says.
May says she decided even before she was elected that one of the things she wanted to do was raise more awareness about the threat of Lyme disease. She says she's heard too many stories from friends and constituents of people whose Lyme diagnosis was missed for far too long.
Her bill calls for a national surveillance program to track the incidence of Lyme diagnoses, as well as the establishment of proper treatment guidelines. As well, she'd like to see educational materials so that Canadians can learn how to best protect themselves from infection.
"What I'm hoping to get is greater awareness of the threat, greater government response, diagnosis and treatment."
Among May's supporters is Marleen Meerkat, who was bitten by an infected tick five years ago and soon developed fever, and blinding pain headaches that felt like an axe was coming down on her head.
"I started sleeping 10 hours a night, and 17 hours a weekend and had absolutely no energy," she says.
Like many with Lyme, it took her years to be properly diagnosed, even though the treatment is simple if it's caught early.
"It is preventable. It's about $50 of antibiotics at the early stages and that's that," she says.
In Meerkat's case, the bacteria had become well-established in her. After trying a number of cycles of antibiotics, she eventually went to a specialist in the U.S. But even five years later, she says she's still only about 70 per cent better.
So while as politicians prepare to debate the merits of a national Lyme strategy, health officials are planning new warnings.
"We need to work with the provinces and territories to get the message down to the physicians that the situation is changing they may be seeing Lyme disease more than they ever had," says Lindsay.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip