Nice weather is here and you’re out and about? Be on the lookout for eight-legged menaces on the march. Tick populations armed with the Borrelia bacteria are increasingly creeping into Canada, expanding and growing – and so too the number of tick-borne diseases, predominantly Lyme.
It’s a ticking Lyme bomb, and vastly under-detected across Canada. Dr. Vett Lloyd, a researcher and biology professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, says eight out of 10 cases are being missed – along the coast, the number is higher.
The majority of Canadians who have Lyme disease are slipping through the cracks.
“Diagnosis is missed when Lyme disease is not considered as a diagnosis by the physician or patient and when the standard blood testing procedure is fault,” says Lloyd, a member of the new Lyme Disease and Tick-Borne Illnesses Task Force.
Decades-old testing protocols are a failure. Patients and advocacy groups report access-to-care a nightmare. If the disease is treated promptly with antibiotics, people get better. No treatment, and the illness becomes chronic and debilitating. Even deadly.
“It’s a serious and growing epidemic,” says Sue Faber, co-founder of the advocacy group LymeHope. She believes that because of so many missed cases of Lyme disease, “instead of 2,025 annual cases reported by Public Health of Canada, we are actually dealing with approximately 56,000 cases every year in Canada.”
Lyme-disease-carrying ticks are deposited randomly by our friendly migratory birds, such as wrens and robins. Lloyd actually got bit by a tick in her backyard – she describes her Lyme disease battle as “hell.” That’s how many would also describe navigating the health care system for diagnosis and treatment.
Many Canadians are being alienated by the conventional health-care system and seek costly private health care, even beyond the country’s borders, at their own expense, says Lloyd. Others follow home remedies obtained from Dr. Google and either natural products or antibiotics purchased from the black or grey market.
Adds Lloyd: “When Canadians are obtaining health care from the internet and antibiotics from their local drug dealers, I think it is safe to say that the current situation is both dangerous and cruel.”
Climate change is empowering ticks to grow in numbers. places and pathogens, says Mary Beth Pfeiffer, investigative journalist and author of Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. “By virtue of the developed world’s lifestyle and influence… we have paved the way for the first global epidemic abetted by climate change. Warming may not have caused this scourge, but it most certainly is enabling it.”
Winnipeg resident Joanne Seiff describes Lyme as “insidious. Being sick with Lyme is awful, and it creeps along – you feel worse and worse but it’s hard to get anyone to believe you.”
She got sick in May, 2016 with what felt like the flu.
“I had recurring fevers, swelling and fatigue that progressed to swollen joints, lymph nodes, and other Lyme symptoms.”
She saw multiple physicians, including specialists, and was dismissed in every case.
“Canadian health systems are unprepared for this. Doctors aren’t well-trained, labs don’t test for all the strains, cases are under-reported and there’s a real sense of disbelief that Lyme – and other tick-borne illnesses – exist here,” says Seiff, author and knitwear designer at joanneseiff.com.
Doctors need to become better educated and responsive, says Seiff, and “follow the protocol that suggests an immediate, prophylactic dose of doxycycline if Lyme disease is at all suspected.”
She also believes laboratory testing needs major updating and tick research proper funding.
Adds Lloyd: “The cost to individual Canadians ill with Lyme disease, and their families and communities, is already appalling in terms of personal suffering. At some point that will translate into a societal cost and change will have to happen.”
It’s a polarizing issue, and what’s more, Faber, a nurse, wants the public to know that
“human to human maternal transmission has been demonstrated in peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature. Lyme disease can be transmitted from mother-to-baby in utero causing miscarriage, death and/or newborn infection.”
Both Faber and LymeHope (lymehope.ca) co-founder/lawyer Jennifer Kravis believe they unknowingly transmitted Lyme disease to their children while pregnant. The medical world isn’t convinced, including the Health Canada website, that says “there is not enough evidence to confirm that Lyme disease during pregnancy has adverse effects for the fetus…”
Meanwhile, if you suspect you have Lyme disease, Jim Wilson, of Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, advises “asking your doctor for the standard Lyme test with the full understanding that if the results comes back negative that in no way rules out Lyme disease.” More guidance is available at canlyme.com, including prevention and safe tick removal.
Protect yourself with tips from microbiologist and author Jason Tetro:
- Take a look at the Government of Canada’s tick surveillance webpage to find out if your area is at risk.
- When outside, wear long, light-coloured protective clothing and tuck in pant legs into socks or boots.
- Always use a product containing DEET such as Off! Deep Woods Tick.
- After being outdoors, check your entire body for ticks including under the arms, inside the belly button and in and around the hair. Check your clothing, gear and pets for ticks.
- Shower within two hours of coming indoors and throw clothing in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes.