Lyme-carrying ticks on the rise in Alberta
Lack of familiarity may mean disease goes undiagnosed
By: By Megan Sarrazin
| Posted: Saturday, Aug 11, 2012 06:00 am
Lyme disease in Alberta has the potential to spike in coming years, with new information pointing to an increased population of disease-carrying ticks.
“We have found that some of the ticks are present in Alberta and a small number have been found to have Lyme in them,” said Dr. Christopher Sikora, Medical Officer of Health for the Edmonton zone. He said it is a “definite possibility” that the number of human cases could increase.
Eleven cases of Lyme disease have been confirmed in the province since 2007 – three from this year alone, he said.
Sikora said all reported cases are either immigration or travel-related, adding he has not heard of anyone contracting Lyme disease in the province.
Lyme disease is passed to ticks after they bite infected animals such as birds, squirrels and mice. The infected tick can then pass the disease to humans.
The most obvious indicator of Lyme disease is a bulls-eye rash that develops around the bite, although it only develops in a portion of cases. Some sufferers experience arthritis, dizziness or paralysis instead. Lyme disease can often be treated successfully with antibiotics, Sikora said.
“Lyme disease can be carried by a particular type of tick: Ixodes pacificus and Ixodes scapularis,” he said. “They’re not really found in Alberta that often. Given that they aren’t found that often, when they are found, we take note.”
University of Alberta graduate student Daniel Fitzgerald studied a sampling of ticks removed from man’s best friend between 2007 and 2010 and found that these species are more common than initially thought.
“The number of Ixodes scapularis identified was very surprising,” he said. “This is strong circumstantial evidence that something is going on with this tick in Alberta.”
Fitzgerald found 16 species of ticks present in Alberta – two of which were previously not thought to live in the province. One of these species is known to spread Lyme disease.
Nearly 1,200 ticks removed from more than 800 hosts were evaluated. Veterinarians in the province sent 108 ticks in for testing, in accordance with the Animal Health Act requiring veterinarians to report notifiable diseases, like Lyme disease.
Of the 108 ticks tested, 22 were positive for the presence of Lyme disease – 16 of which were collected from pets that had not travelled outside provincial borders.
“We’ve never before found so many of the species that can transmit Lyme disease pathogen here in Alberta,” he said. “People may think they have to go somewhere to get a tick, but they don’t. Ticks can be found nearly everywhere people live in Alberta.”
Jim Wilson, president of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, isn’t surprised by the finding. He said there has been a growing number of Lyme-carrying ticks in the province over the last decade.
“It’s been in Alberta for quite some time. We’ve known it’s been there and there’s been a number of Albertans getting sick,” he said. “There’s definitely people who have contracted Lyme disease in Alberta.”
Treatment for Lyme disease is relatively simple, Wilson said, adding the difficulty lies in actually getting a proper diagnosis.
Sylwia Gomes, spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said roughly 150 cases of Lyme disease have been reported in Canada since 2009, with nearly half acquired while travelling outside the country.
“It is important to note that information from voluntary reports of cases points to an increasing incidence of Lyme disease in Canada,” she said via e-mail.
Wilson said despite the increase, Lyme disease remains drastically under-reported and under-detected in Canada, largely due to a lack of physician awareness and adequate testing.
He said many doctors write-off the possibility of patients having Lyme disease because they have been told for years that it does not exist in Alberta.
Another hurdle is the provincial requirement to test only for the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterial species, while failing to test for other strains, he said.
St. Albert resident Alison Glass was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2007, after vacationing in Germany. She developed the typical bulls-eye rash, but chalked it up as a bad mosquito bite.
“I came back to Canada and about six months later, I wished I was dead,” she said.
The first doctor she saw at a local medicentre had emigrated from Austria, where Lyme disease is common, and diagnosed her immediately.
“From that time on, I’ve had to travel to get medical treatment, but I’ve gotten it and I’m on the road to recovery,” she said.
Glass said she was fortunate this was the case, adding her general practitioner was unaware of Lyme disease.
For treatment, Glass travels to the United States to see a specialist in tick-borne diseases. The cost is not covered by the Alberta government, although she said she gets a small portion back by claiming it on her taxes.
“I’m willing to spend the money to get better,” she said. “[I have a] decent quality of life. Can you put a dollar amount on that?”
Although she tests positive for Lyme disease using labs in the United States and Germany, Canadian results show she is negative for the disease.
Wilson said roughly 3,000 Canadians contact the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation annually, majority of whom, like Glass, test negative for the disease in Canada, but test positive elsewhere.
The United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported roughly 30,000 cases of Lyme disease in 2010.
Lyme disease is most often found in areas with a high Ixodes scapularis or blacklegged tick population, such as Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.