Uptake of Lyme disease cases in Canada, experts warn

TORONTO – Lois MacLean has no memory of the tick bite that changed her life.

Unlike others who are bitten and end up with rashes as a warning sign, MacLean didn’t see any red flags. It took five years for her to be diagnosed with Lyme disease.

In the fall of 2004, the real estate agent got sick. The next five years were marred with visiting dozens of doctors, trying to figure out what was causing a string of illnesses – chronic pain in her muscles, incessant fatigue, problems with her bladder, severe osteoporosis, mood disorder and even nerve damage from surgery.

“I had sensitive teeth, I had nerve damage in my feet, I had anxiety, I had headaches, I had vertigo, I had skin hypersensitivity, debilitating fatigue,” MacLean lists.

While it may have taken years to diagnose, it was a PET scan MacLean paid out of pocket for that determined she had Lyme disease – a condition that experts say is becoming more common in Canada.

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Lyme disease on the rise in Canada: scientist

“People should be aware that this is really an emerging disease and they should take precautions to avoid being bitten,” Dr. Robbin Lindsay said.

Lindsay is a research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.

The ailment became a nationally reportable illness only in 2009.

Read more: Climate change may be reason ticks are spreading across Canada

Lindsay says that an expanding population of ticks is adding to the increasing number of Lyme disease cases in Canada. In 2011, for example, there were 258 human cases – a significant climb from previous years. Other organizations peg the number even higher.

“We’re definitely seeing a trend in the upward direction,” Lindsay said.

The experts suggest the uptake in ticks may be linked to rising temperatures. The bug-friendly climates are making it easier for the ticks to distribute into new areas.

Lyme disease and ticks

With sunny weather and lush wilderness across Canada, many people head outdoors for camping, hiking or picnics in wooded areas.

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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.

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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.

A close up of an adult female, an adult male, nymph and larva tick is shown next to a paper clip. (Getty Images)

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. That’s enough time for the bacteria in the insect’s gut to make its way into replicating.

You could show symptoms within three to as long as thirty days: a rash at the site of the bite, headaches, fevers, muscle aches and the chills.

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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.

More conditions linked to tick bites

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.

“These ticks are not a one trick pony,” Lindsay warned. He said the tick bites could lead to other often overlooked conditions.

A prime example is anaplasma phagocytophilum, a flu-like illness that was first identified in the 1990s that’s even recognized in Europe now.

Another is babesiosis – caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells spread by certain ticks. Lindsay calls it a “malaria-like” parasite and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that those who are infected often do not show symptoms.

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In this case, the ticks carrying these parasites are in parts of the Northeast and upper Midwest of the United States, the CDC says.

Powassan encephalitis virus is named after the Ontario town it was first diagnosed in. It’s a rarity though – only a couple dozen cases have been documented since the 1950s.

Lindsay tells readers that conditions other than Lyme disease don’t conventionally occur after getting a tick bite. The incidence rate is about one per cent or less.

“We’ve made Lyme disease nationally [reportable] so I think raising awareness on that pathogen will help raise awareness of the others,” he said.

But scientists are carefully following tick behaviour and may tack on the other illnesses if required, he said.

Diagnosis and treatment

Several antibiotics can treat Lyme disease but health officials emphasize the importance of earlier identification and treatment.

In some cases, Lyme disease can be cured within a two- to four-week period.

If the tick is found attached to a person, it should be removed with tweezers and in those instances, treatment may not even be necessary, the Ontario government says on its website.

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For MacLean, years of baffled guesses left her to consider paying up for a PET scan. The results showed MacLean had inflammation in her brain, a key symptom in those with Lyme disease.

She had a diagnosis and a treatment plan that included antibiotics. Within a few weeks, MacLean regained her mental mobility.

“I could count backwards starting at 100 and that was like, oh my gosh, I’m back,” she told Global News.

For a report on Lyme disease, watch Global National Friday night at 6:30 p.m. ET.

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 has “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.

Information provided by the Ontario Ministry of Health

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