Canada Lyme Disease on the Move as Government Snores
The Government Believes Ticks Only Pass a Single Infection?
Are They Living in the 1980's?
A quietly ticking time bomb
Lyme disease is spreading into southern Quebec and its symptoms are difficult to diagnose. The results can be devastating
By Robert J. Galbraith, Freelance May 9, 2010
Quebec's leading authority on tick biology is warning that the southern part of Quebec has become a new battleground for the spread of the debilitating disease commonly known as Lyme disease.
"We could have a real problem on our hands if things keep going the way they are," said Alain Villeneuve, a professor of parasitology at the faculty of veterinary medicine of the Universite de Montreal in St. Hyacinthe. "The public should be made more aware of the reality of Lyme disease and its spread and know how to take precautions to prevent infection."
Villeneuve says little is being done by the provincial or federal health officials to notify the public and physicians of this increasing health threat. Meanwhile, Lyme disease cases are skyrocketing in Vermont, New York and Maine, states along the border with Quebec. There were more than 29,000 cases reported in the United States in 2008, most of them in the northeastern states. Ontario reported 102 cases in 2008.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bite of the black-legged tick (also referred to as the deer tick). If untreated, it can cause serious health symptoms that affect many systems of the body, but it can be effectively treated if caught in the early stages of infection.
The longer the disease remains undetected, the more serious and debilitating the symptoms become and the more difficult they can be to treat.
A second tick, more common to Quebec, is the brown or dog tick. Unlike the deer tick, this tick does not carry the Lyme bacteria, though its bite can cause a number of different illnesses.
As the deer population in Quebec increases, so does the tick population. Climate change is also a contributing factor to the spread of ticks. The warmer our winters become, the more ticks survive.
Francois Milord, a medical consultant with the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec, agrees that more must be done to raise awareness among medical workers and the public in Quebec, particularly in the Monteregie and other southern regions of the province.
"If we look at what has happened in other areas, the numbers will probably increase in coming years. This is the time to inform all parties about this potential growing problem.
"At this time, we have done nothing to notify the public, though there is information on Lyme disease on the Ministère de la sante (INSPQ) website," he said.
Milord explained that his department has been conducting field studies with Health Canada.
The first case of Lyme disease in Quebec was reported in 2004. "What I know is that from 2004 to 2007, cases that were reported in the province were all instances of Lyme disease that were acquired outside of Quebec, in the United States." (Lyme disease is also widespread in Europe and Asia.) In 2008, the first case of Lyme disease acquired inside Quebec was confirmed in the Monteregie.
"From 2004 to 2009, we have had between 8 to 15 cases per year, with most of these cases caught outside the province," Milord said.
The same concern about the spread of Lyme disease in Quebec is being voiced by Jim Wilson, president of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation (CanLyme), formed in 2004 and based in British Columbia.
"The situation in Quebec is ridiculous," he said. "Research in Quebec has been very limited and very much under-reported.
"In the next five years, Lyme disease will rear its ugly head and be a huge problem in that province. Then the authorities will be forced to acknowledge they should have taken this threat seriously 20 years ago when the writing was on the wall."
Wilson said the government should be doing more research on the effects and symptoms of tick bites and their effects on human health.
Wilson contracted Lyme disease in 1991 after being bit by a tick in Dartmouth, N.S., where he lived at the time.
When he noticed a rash around his navel, the local doctors didn't know what it was. It was only months later that he became ill.
"I visited a whole series of doctors, going from specialist to specialist," he explained. "But it was misdiagnosed, the physicians were unable to find what was going on."
After doing his own research, Wilson believed he might be suffering from Lyme disease, but the doctors were skeptical.
"It was finally a doctor in B.C. that confirmed it was Lyme disease in 1994. Once the treatment kicked in, it was absolutely amazing.
"I didn't feel like I was dying anymore."
Wilson said current testing is inadequate, using outdated technology from the 1980s.
Deer ticks in all stages of reproduction are now well established in the province. As late as 2004, only adult deer ticks were being found in Quebec.
"They were probably the result of adult ticks attaching themselves to migratory birds in contaminated regions of the United States. Then when the birds migrate to Quebec, the ticks would drop off looking for a host to feed on their blood," Wilson said.
Then in 2007, during field work, Milord and his associates found evidence the full tick breeding cycle (larva, nymph and adult) had become a reality in Quebec and the ticks "seemed to be well adapted and growing in numbers."
Although Milord said that Lyme carrying ticks are widespread in Quebec because of migratory birds, he acknowledged research only began in 2007.
Lyme disease was first identified in the city of Lyme, Conn., in 1975. Doctors didn't understand what caused it until 1982.
The disease is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are not consistent. It has been often called the "great imitator" by medical researchers and physicians because it is illusive and can impersonate different diseases and neurological disorders at the same time.
It can be first recognized as a rash near the bite area, but even the rash is not present in all cases. It can affect the brain, joints, the lungs, central nervous system; every organ of the body. Each case can be different and the great majority of cases in Canada are misdiagnosed.
"We don't know how many are suffering because of misdiagnosis," Wilson said. Advanced stages of Lyme's are similar to the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
"Lyme sufferers can be misdiagnosed as suffering from something else, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, chronic fatigue, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's, advanced arthritis, respiratory and a variety of psychiatric and psychological disorders," he explained. "We really have to catch up to speed on the analysis as so many can be misdiagnosed and be suffering unnecessarily."
He says it is a misconception that deer ticks only live on deer. They are just as likely to live on shrews, white footed mice, squirrels, and pets. "If your dog sleeps on your bed, you'd better damn well make sure it doesn't have ticks, otherwise they may end up feeding off you."
Wilson recommends that pet owners use latex gloves to examine their pets for ticks, paying close attention to the ears, around the face, eyes, legs and belly, looking for unusual lumps. Ticks will range in size from the size of a poppy seed to the size of a fingernail (when it has drawn blood and ready to drop off).
Wilson explained that the message "no tick is a good tick" must get out to the public.
"These organisms are very, very dangerous and it's not just deer ticks but other diseases passed on by all ticks. And why is there no massive education going on where these creatures are known to occur?
"There should be bilingual poster campaigns advising the public what to watch out for and how to safely remove ticks from themselves and their pets.
"There should also be TV ads and most importantly, physician awareness."
SOURCE: The Montreal Gazette