Health officials in Alberta, Canada, have warned that ticks carrying Lyme disease have been identified in the province. Five ticks removed from pets in Calgary, High River, and Edmonton tested positive for Borrelia bacteria sparking a flurry of concern over what some have called a growing epidemic so far ignored by the Public Health Authority of Canada (PHAC). Ticks taken from the four dogs and a cat were sent to local laboratories by veterinarians for testing as part of a standard research protocol set up to detect such infectious diseases. Ticks identified as western blacklegged ticks (the major Lyme disease vector in North America) were then sent to the national microbiology lab and found to be infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease bacteria. More than twenty-five ticks carrying Lyme disease have been identified since the research began in 2007 after the first case of a Lyme disease-carrying tick was reported.
However, just twenty cases of Lyme disease in humans in Alberta were reported between 1989 and 2008, and no cases of Lyme disease have been reported in the province since 2008. This has led to expressions of concern regarding underdiagnosis of Lyme disease by doctors working in Alberta. Official statements stress that those cases of Lyme disease in Albertans may have been due to tick bites that occurred outside of the province. Only adult ticks infected with Lyme have been found in Alberta, suggesting that they represent a transient infected tick population that has been brought into the area by migratory birds. Should infected nymphal stage ticks be found the scientists may be more likely to consider these areas as having a permanent tick population infected with Lyme disease.
The Perils of Untreated Lyme Disease
Untreated Lyme disease can lead to severe symptoms in humans and animals, including pet dogs and cats, and may, in a small number of cases, prove fatal. Neurological Lyme disease complications can occur, along with heart irregularities, Lyme arthritis, musculoskeletal issues, and even liver or kidney damage in some patients. The chief medical officer of Alberta, Andre Corriveau, has stressed that Lyme disease prevention is of utmost importance and advises everyone to use insect repellent, to wear protective clothing when in tick-endemic areas, and to remain alert for symptoms of early stage Lyme disease infection, such as the erythema migrans (Bull’s-eye) rash often seen following a tick bite. Other early symptoms include a flu-like illness with fever, lethargy, chills, shaking, and loss of appetite.
Ticks in Alberta and other Canadian Provinces
Ticks carrying the Lyme disease bacteria require a succession of animal hosts to complete their life-cycle and it is thought that the migration of birds across the country, and from the US, has been instrumental in introducing infected ticks to provinces such as Alberta and Ontario. British Columbia has also had a number of Lyme disease cases in recent years and there are many calling for improvements in the training of physicians to improve their ability to recognize Lyme disease symptoms and provide adequate Lyme disease treatment.
There are problems with testing for Lyme disease however, with some Canadian patients choosing to send their bloodwork to laboratories in the US, such as Igenex, for testing rather than rely on less-experienced Canadian laboratories. Blood tests for Lyme disease are notoriously inaccurate, particularly in the first few weeks of infection while antibodies are still building to detectable levels in a patient. Delaying treatment can compromise the patients’ health however, and the reluctance of doctors to prescribe antibiotics in cases of suspected, but unconfirmed, Lyme disease is only reinforced by silence on the matter from PHAC.
Lyme Disease Unreported and Under-Recognized
Finding infected ticks in Alberta might be the push that is needed for the Canadian health offices at both regional and national levels to increase efforts at raising tick awareness, physician education, and patient support. A report from the BC Medical Journal in March 2011 found that many doctors had not received sufficient training to recognize Lyme disease in patients, thereby resulting in fewer officially reported cases. This creates a catch-22 situation where low reported case numbers give a false sense of security over Lyme disease prevalence and hinder any attempts to increase funding into research and recognition of the disease.
Meanwhile, many cases of Lyme disease go unrecognized or unreported and patients are not treated appropriately. Chronic Lyme disease in Canada may be on the rise and, without a critical mass of cases, little is likely to be done about it by either provincial or national health officials. Perhaps the discovery of Lyme disease-carrying ticks in Alberta will reignite calls to develop a national strategy for Lyme disease prevention and treatment and save many Canadians from having to travel to the US for therapy.
Anyone finding a tick on themselves or their pet should carefully remove the tick and take it to their veterinarian or doctor for testing. This can help health officials gain a better insight into the presence of Lyme disease in an area and may aid in influencing health policy. Albertans who suspect they have Lyme disease should contact HealthLink Alberta, at 1-866-408-5465.