It’s a busy time for camping and hiking across the country.But Canadians spending time outdoors this summer face an emerging health problem.There’s a rapid increase in the number of cases of Lyme disease and infection caused by tick bites. And those who have the disease, say authorities aren’t doing enough to combat the threat.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. The way you get infected with Borrelia is to be bitten by a vector or insect carrying the infection typically, a black-legged deer tick so named because the tick gets infected after biting a deer (sometimes a mouse) carrying the bacterium. The infected tick latches tightly onto a person and bites the skin, drawing blood, thus transmitting the bacterium. You don’t get Lyme disease by eating deer infected with the bacterium.
Symptoms of Lyme disease vary from person to person and include skin rash, headache, fever or chills, fatigue, numbness or tingling, swollen glands, dizziness, irregular heart beat, muscle and joint pain, mental fog, and neurological symptoms that rarely include paralysis. Left untreated, Lyme symptoms can last months to years, and in rare cases, can lead to death.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says that in 2015, there were 707 new cases of Lyme disease a big jump compared to 143 cases reported back in 2009. Both Ontario and Quebec have both reported large increases in the number of patients infected. Ottawa public health officials reported 70 cases in 2015, up from 22 the year before. In addition to Quebec and Ontario, Lyme has also been reported in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and southern B.C. The thing is, authorities believe the cases reported are just the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Gregory Taylor, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s chief medical officer of health says there could be thousands of Canadians who have been infected recently. The most alarming prediction I’ve seen is as many as 20,000 new cases a year.
What’s behind the jump in the number of Canadians infected? Chalk some of it up to greater awareness. In the ER, I see many more patients who come in with tick bites asking to be tested for Lyme disease. But a big part of the trend is an actual increase in the number of people infected. There are a number of credible theories. Climate change means that more infected ticks are surviving through the Canadian winter. Warmer weather also extends the seasons in which Canadians go hiking and mountain biking in places where the ticks thrive. The less hunting Canadians do, the more deer survive to act as reservoirs of the disease. As well, birds infected with the bacterium may carry it and the disease to more and more parts of the country.
Whatever the cause, critics doubt that the health care system is prepared to deal with the increase. The Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation which is dedicated to raising awareness and promoting research and education, says diagnostic testing, treatment, physician and public awareness are largely inadequate. As reported by CBC News, at a national conference on Lyme disease held in May, one woman said she spent “years going to Canadian doctors to try and find out why she was experiencing severe eye inflammation, headaches and fatigue,” and only got the correct diagnosis when she went to a doctor in upstate New York. She said she spent more than $75,000 in the U.S. on treatments that weren’t available in Canada. She said that Canadian doctors have been extremely slow to recognize that chronic Lyme disease is an actual diagnosis.
And, a woman from Saint John told the CBC’s Information Morning that she spent up to the limit on her credit cards on treatment for chronic Lyme disease.
To reduce the potential threat, the Public Health Agency of Canada advises Canadians to see their health provider right away should theydevelop symptoms of Lyme disease in the weeks after a tick bite. Tell your health care provider about your symptoms and especially if you participated in any activities in an at-risk area. If you saved the tick that bit you, bring it to your medical appointment because we can send it to the lab for analysis. Be prepared to tell your doctor how long the tick was attached to you (the longer, the more likely you are to be infected), and where you were when you were bitten by the tick.
Here is a link that explains how to remove a tick, and other useful bits of information.
Prompt treatment with antibiotics means a strong likelihood of a full recovery. The longer you wait, the more likely you won’t connect the disease to a tick bite, the more likely it is that you will develop delayed symptoms, and the more difficult it is to cure the disease.