LYME DISEASE has settled so deeply into parts of Canada many public health units now just assume if you get bitten by a tick, you should be treated for the potentially debilitating bacteria.
In the last decade, cases of Lyme disease have risen dramatically in Canada, from 144 cases in 2005 to 2,025 cases in 2017.
They’re moving fast — between 35 and 55 km per year, according to Nick Ogden, director of the public health risk sciences division at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.
For example, blacklegged ticks are relatively new arrivals to Ottawa, said Ann Stanton-Loucks, public health inspector with Ottawa Public Health. “There’s always been ticks, but there’s never been the particular kind of tick that causes Lyme disease.”
Last year, she said, 20 per cent of ticks tested positive for Lyme disease bacteria, which prompted the city to note it as an at-risk area for Lyme disease.
Ticks often first arrive in an area by air, said Lindsay, carried by migratory birds like robins and sparrows. But in order for them to survive and establish a population in their new location, certain conditions need to be met.
First, there need to be a lot of ticks flying in. “We think it’s probably a function of there being populations to the south of us that have built to the level where enough birds were coming in infested.”
Secondly, the area needs to be warm enough to enable ticks to move through their various life stages, and in the end, breed and produce more ticks. If it’s too cold, he said, they have trouble doing this quickly enough.
Fortunately for the ticks, there has been a warming trend in regions where the ticks were being dropped. “Definitely climate warming was also a factor.”
The local vegetation and wildlife matters too, said Curtis Russell, a senior program specialist with Public Health Ontario. The ideal home for a tick is a deciduous forest, with lots of leaf litter on the ground and lots of hosts — like small mammals, deer or people — to feed on.
“These ticks are prone to desiccation or drying out, so they need leaf-litter matter to burrow down into when it gets too hot. So because of that, they need to be in brushy wooded areas or mixed deciduous forest, so that’s usually where we see them in Ontario.”
In Ottawa, where more than half of the ticks tested in some neighbourhoods carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, the public-health unit no longer bothers to test ticks because it’s assumed they carry the illness.
Dr. Vera Etches, the top doctor at the health unit, says that means if a tick is found on a person, and is believed to have been there for more than 24 hours, then the patient should get antibiotics to prevent Lyme infection.
After three days, preventive treatment won’t work so patients then wait for symptoms or enough time for antibodies to evolve to show up on a test.
Similar rates of Lyme disease have been found in parts of every province except Alberta, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, but the disease is marching further afield every year.
Lyme disease began appearing in Canada in the early 1980s but it has only been since about 2012 that the ticks that carry the bacteria have become plentiful, mostly due to warmer winters that allow more of them to survive.
How to protect against ticks
Public health officials like Stanton-Loucks still encourage people to spend time outside enjoying nature. But, they advocate a few simple precautions.
- Wear long, light-coloured clothing
- Tuck your pants into your socks
- Wear insect repellent with DEET on clothing and exposed skin
- Do a “tick-check” when you get home and carefully inspect yourself for ticks
- Shower or bathe after you get home to further check for ticks (and wash them down the drain if they’re not attached)
And if you do find a tick embedded in your skin, Stanton-Loucks says not to panic. It can be safely removed with tweezers. Hold the tweezers parallel to the skin and pull straight up, removing the entire tick. Don’t irritate the tick with fire, oil or anything else beforehand, she said.
“The reason being is, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease resides in the gut of the tick. And if you irritate the tick in some way, and it’s embedded in your skin, it will then regurgitate that bacteria directly into your skin and into your bloodstream.”
After removing the tick and thoroughly cleaning the area, she recommends visiting your doctor to see if any further action or treatment is required.
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