House Call with Carol Hughes – June 1, 2018

Ticks are a growing concern

Lyme disease is on the rise as the range of black-legged (deer) ticks expands north due to warmer average temperatures. Once a problem that could be ignored as something that took place in other parts of Canada, more people are being forced to consider tick-safety when heading outdoors. When even something as simple as working in a backyard garden can put a person at risk, public health campaigns that help Canadians understand and limit their risk are becoming vitally important.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria, which commonly infects animals like birds, mice, other small rodents and deer. When ticks bite an infected animal, they can spread it to other animals, including human hosts. Just like flu viruses, there are many types of Lyme disease with some being more severe than others. Adding to the difficulties that some have faced, Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose.

When caught early, the treatment can be straight forward, but not all cases are clear. If a person removes a tick from themselves they can have it tested. If a bulls-eye rash occurs from the bite it is considered an indicator of the presence of Lyme, but that isn’t always the case. Many only discover the presence of the disease after long searches for answers to symptoms that mimic other diseases. Even then, stories of patients travelling long distances to find doctors that diagnose and treat Lyme are common since not all doctors are trained to look for it. Treatment in Canada is also limited, which is why many long term sufferers of Lyme are travelling to the US to receive the long-term treatment that Lyme-expert doctors say is necessary.

Many dog and horse owners know that vaccinations against Lyme are readily available from veterinarians leaving us to wonder why there isn’t one for humans. The truth is one was already developed and was available in the late 1990s. LYMErix was approved by the FDA in the United States, but fell out of favour for a number of reasons. It was the same era that the anti-vaccine movement was gaining prominence and a study also linked the vaccine to the onset of arthritis in hamsters. Shortly after, some vaccinated individuals complained of joint pain and the media ran with the story. What was lost in the narrative was the fact that LYMErix was 80 percent effective and the correlation with arthritis was never fully investigated. Despite the lack of proof, the vaccine’s reputation was tarnished and sales dropped to the point that the manufacturer stopped making it available.

In the absence of a vaccine, the onus is put squarely on prevention. The good news is that there is a lot an individual can do to limit their exposure to ticks. Just wearing shoes can reduce the chance of picking up ticks by 75 percent. Tucking socks into pants, using insect repellent, and fully examining oneself after being outdoors also help reduce exposure to ticks as does showering shortly after being in areas they inhabit. A tick can feed for up to 24 hours which gives most people plenty of time to discover if they are being bit. If that is the case, consult a doctor and keep any tick you remove to be tested.

It pays to be safe and avoid bites altogether since ticks can transit a number of diseases including Powassan Virus which can be deadly and is carried by a wider variety of ticks. The federal and provincial governments have put money into tick programs and most of that cash has been earmarked for awareness campaigns. A vaccine would be a beneficial addition to these efforts and with the problem of Lyme disease only growing, perhaps some resources to investigate that option will be next.