Lyme disease still a controversial diagnosis, as Alberta cases climb

CALGARY- Alberta Health officials are once again warning people to be on the lookout for ticks.

Last year, the province collected and analyzed 960 ticks, and found burgdorferi bacteria. The bacteria most commonly linked to Lyme disease is present in about 20 per cent of black-legged ticks.

Cases of Lyme disease are rising in Alberta. There were 19 confirmed cases in 2013, up from 8 in both 2012 and 2011. Alberta Health says all of the cases were acquired outside the province, but advocates believe narrow testing methods are leading to many cases of the infection being missed.

“I would certainly agree that it’s under diagnosed,” says Janet Sperling, a board member with the  Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation. “You have to have a positive ELISA and a positive Western blot, then you’re considered to be positive for Lyme disease. But that’s a really strict interpretation of what Lyme disease is.”

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According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, ELISA is a blood test that detects the presence of antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. However, Sperling argues ticks carry many others strains of bacteria and some of those strains can also cause disease.

“There are variants of Lyme disease, and I think you really have to focus on the kind of variants that we would have here [in Alberta].”

Andrea Price believes she and her sister Angela McLellan are both suffering from chronic Lyme disease.  Neither sister can recall ever having had a tick bite, but they have both suffered with unexplained symptoms for years.

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“I would break into cold sweats, I was extremely fatigued, I had muscle soreness and cramps, as well as joint aches,” recalls McLellan.

Price, a former volleyball player with the U of C Dinos, adds her symptoms forced her off the court.

“I had to take eight months off of everything. I couldn’t play volleyball, I couldn’t do anything. I sat on the couch or laid in bed.”

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After four years pursuing a diagnosis from her family doctor and a neurologist, Price finally turned to a naturopath.  The sisters received a positive Lyme disease diagnosis from a private American clinic, but because the diagnosis wasn’t recognized within the Alberta Health system treatment is not covered.

“Nothing is covered by Alberta Blue Cross or Alberta Health Care,” McLellan complains. “Part of that reason is that the treatment is coming from naturopaths, and not medical doctors.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it recognizes the need to improve how Lyme disease is both treated and diagnosed.  The agency recently announced a three year action plan on Lyme disease, calling for better surveillance and more research into improved  testing  methods.

Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May also brought forward a private members bill last year calling for a national Lyme disease strategy. Earlier this month, Bill C-442 passed second reading and has been sent to the House Standing Committee on Health for further study.

Alberta Health says it’s not yet possible to know if ticks carrying the bacterium linked to Lyme disease are established in Alberta but they are ramping up surveillance efforts. Under the “submit-a-tick” program, Albertans who find a tick on themselves or on a pet are asked to bring it to either a vet or an Alberta Health Services Environmental Health office.

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You can protect yourself from tick bites by covering up as much skin as you can when you’re going to be in wooded or grassy areas, tucking long pants into your socks, wearing a hat, using bug spray containing DEET and checking yourself and your pets for ticks after you’ve been outside.

Symptoms of Lyme disease include fatigue, fever or chills, headache, muscle and joint pain, numbness or tingling, swollen lymph nodes, skin rash, cognitive dysfunction, dizziness, nervous system disorders and arthritis.

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