Calgary

Experts say Alberta Lyme disease risk is very low

Health officials say the risk of contracting Lyme disease in Alberta is relatively low, but advocates say the threat isn't taken seriously enough.

Alberta has 4 reported cases so far this year, but some advocates say disease needs to be taken more seriously

A bite from a tick carrying Lyme disease can cause have long-term health effects if untreated. The risk of contracting Lyme disease in Alberta is relatively low, which advocates say, means doctors aren't looking for in patients. (CBC)

Health officials say the risk of contracting Lyme disease in Alberta is relatively low, but some advocates say the threat isn't taken seriously enough. 

Lyme disease is an infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. In Canada, it's transmitted by two species of ticks that suck on the blood of humans and other animals: the blacklegged tick (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) and the western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus).

If detected early, the treatment is a short course of antibiotics that cures the majority of people. Left untreated, it can result in facial palsy, meningitis, heart problems, nerve damage and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. 

Of the 2,781 ticks submitted to the Alberta tick surveillance program in 2016, 181 were of the black-legged variety and only 34 tested positive for the Lyme disease bacteria. 

According to Alberta Health, there were 10 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the province in 2016. So far this year, there have been four.

All of the confirmed cases of the disease this year were acquired outside of the province, said deputy chief medical officer of health Dr. Martin Lavoie.

"The risk of acquiring Lyme disease in Alberta is considered very low," he said. "It's not zero and we're not saying that it's zero."

Lavoie said infected ticks registered in the province were brought in by deer or migratory birds.

In 2016, Canada's top public health officer at the time — Dr. Gregory Taylor — said an increase in Lyme disease cases in the country was a concern.

In 2015, there were more than 700 cases of Lyme disease reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada. In 2009, there were 128 cases.

However, there's a division in Canada on how to interpret the blood test for Lyme disease, how to treat it and whether there is a chronic version with a variety of symptoms such as generalized pain and fatigue that can last years or decades.  

While mainstream physicians in Canada and the U.S. following criteria from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wouldn't put patients on antibiotics for several months or longer, some clinicians do — but others warn the practice risks promoting antibiotic resistance and can harm patients.

How to protect yourself from ticks

Recommended precautions to avoid picking up ticks include:

  • Cover up with light-coloured clothing to spot ticks more easily.
  • Walk in the centre of designated trails.
  • Wear closed-toed shoes.
  • Tuck your pant legs into your socks to prevent ticks from crawling up your legs.
  • Tuck your shirt in to prevent ticks from getting onto your skin.
  • Use insect repellents that contain DEET or Icaridin.
  • Have a friend give a quick scan at regular intervals to check if a tick is crawling on you.
  • When you return home, change your clothes and hang the clothes outside so ticks don't enter the house. Run the clothes through a washer and dryer.
  • Shower or bathe within two hours of being outdoors to wash away loose ticks.

In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before Lyme disease bacteria can be transmitted, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Risk isn't being taken seriously enough, some say

However, some people feel the medical community isn't taking the risk seriously enough.

Rosie Numan says she struggled for years and was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2013.

Rosie Numan said she struggled for years to get a proper diagnosis. She was told her ailments were related to Lyme disease in 2013. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"I was misdiagnosed for many years with multiple illnesses ranging from something as mild as chronic tonsillitis and sinusitis to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and irritable bowel," she said.

Numan said she was bitten by a tick at the age of six and has been sick most of her life. 

Janet Sperling, a University of Alberta researcher and member of the advocacy group Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, said she would like to see doctors in Alberta receive better training in how to identify and diagnose the disease.

"If you are one of the people that gets Lyme disease, it's probably going to be missed because nobody's really looking for Lyme disease," she said.