Calgary doctor speaks out against ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment for Lyme disease

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Calgary doctor questions Lyme disease treatment
WATCH ABOVE: It's often undiagnosed and can cause extreme pain for sufferers. Now a Calgary doctor is questioning how we treat Lyme disease altogether. Global’s Kim Smith has that story – Jul 28, 2016

A Calgary doctor is raising concerns about the way Lyme disease is treated in Alberta.

The guideline for treating Lyme disease is three weeks of antibiotics. However, Hawkins said some of his patients are on antibiotics for up to a year.

Click here to visit the Government of Canada website detailing Lyme disease treatment guidelines

“It concerns me when I see a one-size-fits-all guideline-based approach,” said Dr. Ralph Hawkins, a doctor of general internal medicine at Calgary’s South Health Campus.

Lyme disease is an emotionally charged illness that Canadians have been hearing more and more about. The infection is caused by a bacteria transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks.

READ MORE: New Brunswickers with Lyme disease push for new treatment guidelines

Hawkins is one of a few Canadian specialists in internal medicine treating Lyme disease in the country.

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“I think what has happened in Canada is we’ve ended up with very narrow guidelines. Forty per cent of people that are treated according to the guidelines will have ongoing persistent symptoms or even functional disability,” Dr. Hawkins said.

READ MORE: Inaccurate Lyme disease tests leave Canadian patients without answers

Since taking on his first Lyme disease patient in 2012, Hawkins has assessed nearly 200 patients and now his wait list is two years long.

“The alternative to travelling to Calgary for many of these patients would be travelling to specialty clinics in the United States,” he said.

Watch below: Global’s ongoing coverage of issues around Lyme disease

One of Hawkin’s patients, Sally McConnell, said she was infected with Lyme disease by a tick in Kelowna, B.C. when she was just six years old. She still remembers how it happened.

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“I would forget what I was saying as I was saying it,” McConnell said.

“I couldn’t even unload the top rack of the dishwasher without breaking a sweat and being absolutely exhausted and needing a nap. I had a cup right by my desk that I could throw up into in case I got nauseous.”

A growing number of Canadian patients have voiced concerns about feeling abandoned by the health care system, as Lyme disease often goes undiagnosed for years.

McConnell didn’t learn that she had Lyme disease until she was 34 years old and after she saw dozen of doctors.

“You don’t know how many times I was referred to psychologists and psychiatrists because they thought it was psychosomatic,” McConnell said.

READ MORE: Climate change cited as probable factor for rising cases of Lyme disease in Canada

A couple of years ago, McConnell was referred to Hawkins. That’s when she started to get answers.

“I cried and hugged him. I was so overwhelmed with joy to actually know what was wrong with me.”

Alberta Health said there’s no plan to revisit the current three-week guideline recommendation.

Visit Alberta Health’s webpage on Lyme disease here

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“I think in general it’s quite appropriate and that’s what the guidelines do, it covers most of the situation and so most of the time it fits well,” Deputy Medical Officer of Health Dr. Martin Lavoie  said.

Lavoie said in the last 25 years, there have been about 80 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Alberta, but all of the patients had contracted the infection outside of the province.

“All these people have travelled somewhere where Lyme is actually circulating and we’re not able to confirm that they have acquired this infection here in Alberta,” Lavoie said.

McConnell said after two years of intense treatment, she is finally pain-free.

“I can’t even explain how much better I feel. I do have to pinch myself most days,” McConnell said.

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