Preparing for Lyme disease
By Jenn Watt
Late last month, the federal government announced a small, but important envelope of funding for a health issue that seems to get lots of attention, but little action.
Money was allocated to studying Lyme disease – $4 million to establish a research network – just as a study coming out of St. Francis Xavier University indicates that the black-legged ticks, which carry the Borrelia bacteria, will spread as far as northern Ontario in the next 50 years.
As always, we can thank climate change for the spread of this disease, as black-legged ticks need warm temperatures to survive and hospitable regions are becoming ever more prevalent.
While the Highlands hasn’t yet been found to host infected ticks, we know through studies conducted with veterinarians that local dogs have been exposed to the disease. (Most dogs don’t ever show symptoms of the disease.)
Within the health unit (which stretches south to Port Hope), the disease has regularly been found in ticks (17 found in a 2015 study) and there have been confirmed cases within the larger region of humans contracting the disease.
However, maps provided by the provincial agency show that Haliburton County has so far avoided becoming a “risk area” for black-legged ticks.
(The health unit points out that ticks can travel on migratory birds and can therefore be found pretty much anywhere in Ontario.)
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics and is easiest to address if found early. A bull’s eye shape left at a tick’s feeding site on the skin is one telltale sign. Other early symptoms include fatigue, fever, headaches and a rash. Later symptoms including tremors, memory loss and heart palpitations among a host of others.
For many years, the narrative around Lyme disease was often that of the sufferer being misdiagnosed again and again by health practitioners unfamiliar with the symptoms, since it can present like Alzheimer’s or even Parkinson’s disease.
However, there has been a steady stream of information coming from the local health unit and organizations such as the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.
Additionally, in July local health practitioners will be meeting in Bobcaygeon to hear from Dr. Petra Hopf-Siedel, a neurologist from Germany specializing in the disease. The intention of the meeting is to prepare local professionals for the rising rates of Lyme disease.
Research being done indicates that Lyme disease is not fully understood and though it is treatable, false-negatives are common, prevention methods not always known and misdiagnoses still occur.
Locally, while we may not have Lyme yet, the likelihood is that it’s coming. It’s also present in areas that most of us visit – in Pickering and Mississauga, along Lake Ontario in Prince Edward County and Kingston, for example – which means members of our community could easily come in contact with infected ticks.
We need our health-care system, public health workers and natural resources staff to be given the tools to protect the rest of us as it seems likely Lyme disease will become more common in years to come.