A new, over-the-counter test is now available in Canada that the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation is calling an "important tool" for someone bitten by a tick and concerned they've been exposed to Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is on the rise in Canada, with 700 new cases last year, and early treatment is key, according to Health Canada. But it can be challenging to get a diagnosis quickly, in part because it can take weeks for symptoms to show up.
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The test doesn't solve that problem; it only shows whether the tick has the bacteria, not whether the person who was bitten got infected or will develop Lyme disease.
"It's another important tool ... that will eventually help show us just how prevalent the Lyme bacteria is," said Jim Wilson, president of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.
"It should never be used to inform anybody as to whether they should go to the doctor or whether they may or may not have Lyme disease. If somebody is bitten by a tick they should seek medical attention."
'Lyme disease ... could be anywhere'
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia bacteria, and spread by infected ticks. If left untreated, it can cause fatigue and weakness, as well as damage to the heart, nerves and other organs, according to Health Canada.
However, getting a diagnosis can be a battle, said Wilson. (It's one of the areas his group is discussing with the federal government this week, at an Ottawa conference on Lyme Disease.)
There isn't an early, reliable blood test to detect Lyme, and symptoms can vary from person to person — including skin rash, headache, fever and swollen lymph nodes.
Doctors will factor in whether someone has been in an "at-risk" or "endemic area," where ticks are known to carry Lyme disease, which according to Health Canada includes:
- Southern B.C.
- Southeastern and south-central Manitoba.
- Southern, eastern and northwestern Ontario.
- Southern Quebec.
- Southern New Brunswick and Grand Manan Island.
- Parts of Nova Scotia.
However, Wilson doesn't think there hasn't been enough surveillance to reliably know where infected ticks can be found.
"There's this overemphasis on 'known endemic areas,'" said Wilson. "We don't know where Lyme disease is. It could be anywhere is our mantra."
That's why a test that someone could buy at a drug store to check for the Borrelia bacteria could be helpful, despite its limitations, he said.
Government evaluating accuracy
The test isn't regulated in Canada. Because it doesn't test human samples, it isn't considered a medical device, according to the company and Health Canada.
However, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement it is "currently evaluating the performance characteristics of the Care Plus tick test on blacklegged ticks collected from people from across Canada to ensure that the test provides accurate and reliable information for the end user."
A user has to safely remove the entire tick, crush it in a test-tube with solution, and drop liquid on a test strip. The company claims it is more than 95 per cent accurate in detecting three types of Borrelia bacteria.
A Vancouver doctor who specializes in travel medicine said the test can be used as an "early warning system" to discuss Lyme disease with their doctor and possibly diagnose it earlier.
"In the early stages, it may be the only thing you have to go on is a positive tick result," said Dr. Gio Miletto, who is paid by the company to discuss the test, but doesn't financially benefit from sales.
The Public Health Agency of Canada does not recommend testing of ticks for infection to decide whether to treat someone for Lyme disease, but said the test may have a role to play in disease prevention if it prompts people to seek medical attention.