Lyme disease is a growing threat in Canada, and why it’s spreading may surprise you. Climate change is increasing the range of blacklegged ticks. Lyme disease can be a devastating disease that many medical practitioners don’t know much about. Learn how you can protect yourself and what to do if you suspect you’ve been bitten.
When Jim Wilson noticed a large, circular rash on his abdomen in the spring of 1991 while living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, he was perplexed. He didn’t know what could have caused it. It lasted for about a month, then went away on its own. But his health problems were just beginning.
A range of symptoms
Wilson went on to experience a range of severe symptoms, including numbness in his legs, nausea, memory loss, and difficulty eating, talking, and sleeping. Three years later, after trips to several doctors, he was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which he’d contracted from a painless bite by a blacklegged tick.
“It was horrible to think a little tiny tick can do that much harm that affects so many systems of the body,” Wilson says. “It affected my sight, hearing, brain, breathing, joints, muscles, and nerves. I had spasms and seizures. It was terrible.”
Wilson says he got his life back after being treated successfully with antibiotics. Now living in Kelowna, BC, he founded the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation (CanLyme), which aims to raise awareness of ticks and the bacteria they can carry.
Cases are on the rise
A serious illness caused by the bite of a tick infected with the corkscrew-shaped bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease is one of the fastest emerging infectious diseases in North America, according to a 2014 statement made to the Parliamentary Health Committee by Steven Sternthal. He’s the acting director general of the Centre for Food-borne, Environmental and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“It is impacting our most densely populated regions,” Sternthal said. “We anticipate the disease will affect more than 10,000 Canadians per year by the 2020s.”
The number of cases nationwide has increased from 128 in 2009 to an estimated more than 500 in 2013. However, those numbers may be low. Not everyone seeks medical advice for mild symptoms. Others may be misdiagnosed either because symptoms mimic those of other health conditions, or doctors and health care practitioners aren’t aware of Lyme disease. It’s estimated that three times as many people may be suffering from this underreported disease.
Where are ticks found in Canada?
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, they are most abundant in
- southern British Columbia
- southeastern and south-central Manitoba
- southern, eastern, and northwestern Ontario
- southern Quebec
- southern New Brunswick and Grand Manan Island
- parts of Nova Scotia
Why is the disease spreading?
Climate change is one reason Lyme disease could become even more commonplace, with the tick vector moving northward from endemic areas of the United States.
“We’ve been involved in some modelling to determine if the range of the blacklegged tick could change with climate change, and the answer is yes. The blacklegged tick could move farther north and have new habitat,” says Dr. David Patrick, Medical Epidemiology Lead for Antimicrobial Resistance at the BC Centre for Disease Control. “Certainly if we experience real warming, we’ll see a change in the distribution of mosquitoes and we’ll see a change in the distribution of ticks.”
He says the impact of global warming on tick distribution could be more pronounced in other parts of the country than in BC, which has a unique climate and ecology.
“There’s no doubt it’s increasing around Lunenburg and southern Nova Scotia and the Niagara region,” he says. “In BC we’ve been looking actively to see if it’s increasing and the answer is no. We see Lyme bacterium in about one in 200 blacklegged ticks in BC, and that has not changed in a long time. It’s the same with Washington and Oregon.”
A case of misdiagnosis
Dr. Eric Murakami specializes in educating people about Lyme disease through the Dr. E. Murakami Centre for Lyme Research, Education and Assistance. Retired from his medical practice, Murakami saw his first case of Lyme disease in 1994 in Agassiz, BC. He went on to see thousands of patients from all across the country, and the calls keep coming.
“This is a serious epidemic in Canada,” Murakami says. “Many people are misdiagnosed. Lots of people can’t find a doctor to treat them. Untreated for months or even years, it can affect the brain, with cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, and symptoms of stroke.”
The most effective treatment is antibiotics for at least three to four weeks; Wilson took several rounds. Murakami is also looking at the potential benefits of cannabidiol, a derivative of marijuana.
How to prevent Lyme disease
It can be hard to detect a tick or know you’ve been bitten. During its nymph stage, a tick is only as big as a period at the end of a sentence. Fully grown, it can be the size of a pea. Ticks usually come in contact with people by positioning themselves on tall grass and bushes. According to CanLyme, 50 percent of those who are infected don’t remember being bitten, as bites are painless, and 50 percent of those who have been bitten don’t get a rash.
Be vigilant in these areas
Though the risk is there all year round, you’re most likely to be infected from May through September. Blacklegged ticks are most often found in forests, grassy fields, nature parks, beaches, and gardens. It’s not just hiking in the bush where people can be exposed to ticks. You can come into contact with them while doing any outdoor activities, such as gardening, golfing, or camping.
If you’ve been bitten: step one
Remove the tick
Murakami says it’s important for people who have been bitten to properly remove the tick. One method he devised, which he demonstrates in a YouTube video, involves a drinking straw and a thread.
You can pull a tick out yourself if you’re careful, according to CanLyme. With a pair of fine pointed tweezers and a steady hand, grasp the tick’s mouthparts, not the body, and slowly pull the tick straight out. Many outdoor stores sell tick removal tools.
Step two: Watch for these symptoms
The first physical signs of Lyme disease are often flulike symptoms such as sore throat, headaches, and congestion. Other symptoms include muscle twitching, pain, or cramps; stiff or painful neck or jaw; double or blurry vision, eye pain, or swelling; diarrhea or constipation; shortness of breath; extreme fatigue; night sweats or unexplained chills; and confusion.
Wilson is now actively involved in helping to implement Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s Bill C-442, the Federal Framework on Lyme Disease Act. This Act will establish a federal framework for collaboration between the federal, provincial, and territorial health ministers; the medical community; and patients’ groups to promote greater awareness and prevention of Lyme disease, improve timely diagnosis and treatment, and push for further research.
“I went to a whole series of doctors who told me it must all be in my head,” Wilson says. “With treatment, I went from being so sick to getting my life back.”
- When outdoors, you can reduce the risk of a tick bite.
- Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and closed-toe shoes.
- Tuck your pants into your socks.
- Wear light-coloured clothing to make it easier to spot ticks.
- Check your clothes and your body often.