The federal government is pouring $4 million into the country’s first-ever Lyme disease framework – a timely investment as cases of Lyme disease have shot up across the country over the past few years.
On Tuesday, health officials released the first Federal Framework on Lyme disease – it’s a guide that will help Ottawa with establishing national surveillance, issuing guidelines and educating the public about the illness tied to tick bites.
“It’s important that we raise awareness about this disorder and particularly that we raise awareness of the prevention of tick bites, prevention of Lyme disease, appropriate diagnosis and treatment,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said from Parliament Hill Tuesday.
“The tick populations which could carry Lyme disease are expanding and are now established in different parts of Canada,” she warned.
Philpott said she’s familiar with Lyme disease as a physician, as it isn’t “uncommon” to worry about tick bites while her family vacations at the summer cottage.
The framework comes along with $4 million of funding for research to further our understanding of Lyme disease, and how to diagnose and treat it.
The framework comes after Elizabeth May tabled a private member’s bill five years ago. She urged fellow members of Parliament to shed light on Lyme disease awareness, just as the ailment was gaining traction in Canada.
A conference took place in May 2016. Now, with the framework and funding in tow, Ottawa will hold two days of hearings.
“We are at an important juncture for Lyme disease, and as we move forward collectively, it is crucial that we come together with an evidence-based approach, and to address knowledge gaps through further research,” Dr. Theresa Tam, interim chief public health officer, said in a statement.
Scientists have been warning that blacklegged ticks are spreading to new parts of Canada – and with that migration comes a rise in Lyme disease cases.
The number of Lyme disease cases has shot up across Canada over the last seven years, from 144 in 2009 to a high of 917 in 2015. Blacklegged ticks carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, and transmits it to humans through bites. So, more reports of Lyme disease are partly due to more awareness, but also due to more ticks.
Not everyone was applauding the government’s plans.
Jennifer Kravis and Sue Faber met because they both suffered from Lyme disease. They have stayed friends, joined in their fight to help Canadians.
They feel the framework is a step in the right direction but ultimately falls short.
“We are extremely disappointed. The framework just simply does not address the most important part of this disease, which is the patients,” Kravis told Global News.
“Patients are being belittled as well and being denied their symptoms because physicians just don’t understand the complexity and the multiplicity of symptoms that patients with chronic or late-stage or disseminated Lyme have, and it’s very concerning,” Faber told Global News.
They’re calling for better diagnostic testing and immediate retraining of doctors.
They also commissioned some polling which showed one-in-ten Canadians “claim that they or someone they know in Canada, has been diagnosed with Lyme disease” which would represent close to three millions Canadians, a stark contrast to the 917 Lyme disease cases reported to Health Canada in 2015.
Rossana Magnotta is now dedicating her time to better research, understanding and advocacy surrounding Lyme disease. Her husband, Gabe Magnotta, died in 2009. He was diagnosed with Lyme disease just six years earlier. Rossana created the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases in his memory.
She says some Canadians are forced to travel to other countries like the United States for testing for Lyme disease.
“It shouldn’t be like that in this country. It shouldn’t be a country where only if you have money, you can travel and you can go somewhere else to be treated,” she told Global News.
WATCH: Rossana Magnotta created the G. Magnotta Foundation for Vector-Borne Diseases in memory of her late husband, Gabe. She says more needs to be done to educate healthcare providers about Lyme disease.
Dr. Liz Zubek is a family physician in Maple Ridge, B.C. She specializes in the treatment of Lyme disease. She feels Canada needs a more accurate diagnostic test.
“When you actually look at the research, we’re only picking up about 40 per cent of the cases with our current two-tier testing system. In other words, there’s a lot of people falsely told they don’t have Lyme disease,” Dr. Zubek told Global News.
Lyme disease and ticks
With sunny weather and lush wilderness across Canada, many people head outdoors for camping, hiking or picnics in wooded areas.
A danger lurking are these small, blood-sucking insects that have been infected once they’ve fed on mice, squirrels, birds or other small animals carrying the potent bacteria.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there are two types of ticks at play: the western blacklegged tick in British Columbia and the blacklegged tick in other parts of Canada.
Unlike mosquitoes that can transfer West Nile to humans with a single bite, the tick has to be attached to the body for at least 24 to 36 hours, according to public health officials. That’s enough time for the bacteria in the insect’s gut to make its way into its human host.
WATCH: Tick season is underway and some Canadian experts are concerned there could be more ticks this season than ever before and that could lead to more cases of Lyme disease. A Toronto woman knows first-hand how difficult it can be, as Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Allison Vuchnich reports.
You could show symptoms within three to as long as 30 days: a rash at the site of the bite, headaches, fevers, muscle aches and the chills.
These symptoms appear to be the onset of Lyme disease. The condition was first discovered in the 1970s and was named after the town where the initial cases were diagnosed in — Lyme, Conn.
If it’s left untreated, it could move onto the second stage of the disease. The tick’s victim is left with multiple skin rashes, arthritis, heart palpitations, and central and peripheral nervous system disorders.
A third and final stage is recurring arthritis and neurological problems, according to Health Canada.
The little insects may be the predominant culprit of Lyme disease but they’re also responsible for carrying at least three other disease-inducing agents.
How to protect yourself against ticks:
- Wear light-coloured clothing. It makes ticks easier to see and remove before they can attach to feed.
- Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, closed footwear and tuck your pants into your socks.
- Use a tick repellent that contains “DEET.” Apply it to your skin and outer clothing.
- Examine yourself thoroughly for ticks after a day out and use a mirror to check the back of your body.
– With files from Leslie Young and Kevin Nielsen