When Lyme disease came to Canada

The illness caused by deer ticks crossed the border sometime before 1989, but "only a handful" of Canadians had contracted it.

Long Point in Lake Erie was among the fist known places with infected deer ticks

Deer ticks spread Lyme disease in Canada in 1989

33 years ago
Duration 2:18
The tiny disease-spreading tick has spread from the U.S. to he southernmost edge of Ontario.

In 1989, Lyme disease was no longer a strictly American phenomenon. 

Spread to humans by the tiny deer tick, the disease was first identified in the mid-1970s and named for the Connecticut town of Lyme.

"Long Point, a narrow peninsula in Lake Erie, is the one place in Canada where it's known that deer ticks are carrying Lyme disease," reported the CBC's Eric Sorensen on The National in May 1989.   

Socks for protection

As a protected wildlife habitat that was home to migratory birds and over 500 deer, Long Point had a wildlife manager who explained the ticks' behaviour.

"The ticks will wait and they'll look in the grass along the trail for something like a deer or a person to walk by," said Jeff Robinson. "When they walk by, they'll latch on."

Tucking one's pants into one's socks while in an area known to harbour deer ticks was the best way to avoid Lyme disease. (The National/CBC Archives )

Robinson and Sorensen walked along a grassy deer trail through the trees, both with their pants tucked into their socks.

It was one way people could minimize their risks of contracting the disease.

The other, according to Robinson, was "checking themselves occasionally if they know there are deer ticks in the area."

Deer were the carriers

Over 500 deer carrying the tick that carried Lyme disease were known to be living on Long Point in Lake Erie. (The National/CBC Archives)

"People shouldn't view this with panic," said Dr. Ken Rozee at Ottawa's Laboratory Centre for Disease Control. "It's a disease that is amenable to therapy."

Sorensen said six studies were scheduled to be undertaken to learn how widespread the disease was in Canada.

But a public hunt to reduce the overpopulation of deer had been cancelled for the area. If it happened, hunters might take the tick beyond Long Point. 

"Scientists say that would unnecessarily risk spreading a disease that has so far only shown up in a handful of Canadians," said Sorensen.

According to CBC, cases of Lyme disease in Canada had reached 128 by 2009 and climbed to 707 cases in 2015.

As of 2019, the disease has spread to rural and urban regions in British Columbia, Manitoba, southern Ontario, southern Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.