New Brunswick

More Lyme disease cases anticipated with launch of New Brunswick strategy

New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health expects to see an increase in the number of Lyme disease cases in the province as a result of the new Lyme disease strategy launched by her office.

Increased education and awareness could see more patients seek help and more doctors diagnose disease

Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health. (CBC)

New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health expects to see an increase in the number of Lyme disease cases in the province as a result of the new Lyme disease strategy launched by her office.

The strategy includes providing education and awareness to the public and to physicians about the infectious disease, said Dr. Jennifer Russell.

"People seeking help and seeking treatment and seeking advice from their physician would increase and then the level of suspicion on the physician side would increase also," given their increased awareness of the "emerging disease," she said.

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria and is transmitted through the bite of certain types of infected ticks.

New Brunswick had eight laboratory-confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2016, down from 11 the previous year, according to the provincial strategy.

The provincial average over the past few years has been about five cases, said Russell.

Debbie McCann, executive director of the Atlantic Lyme Disease Association and a Lyme disease sufferer, contends the number of cases of Lyme disease in New Brunswick is "vastly unreported."

She has highlighted the discrepancy with the number of cases in neighbouring Maine, which had 1,400 people diagnosed in 2014, compared to only five in New Brunswick.

But Russell said New Brunswick's annual average is consistent with the national figures.

"For Maine, it could be that they have a higher population of ticks, perhaps they have a higher number of people who are going to their physicians with symptoms. It's hard to say what factors are at play," she said.

"As you know, people believe that climate change is contributing to an increase in tick populations in areas."

It could also be a difference in testing guidelines being followed at the respective labs, said Russell.

"The guidelines that are followed in Canada are from the IDSA, the Infectious Disease Society of America, so if the laboratory is following those guidelines…then we can say that yes, that's accurate data and so that's what we endorse and that's what we support."

Numerous hotspots

The current hotspots for Lyme disease in New Brunswick include: St. Stephen, St. George, Saint Andrews, Renforth Grand Manan, Grand Bay-Westfield, Millidgeville, Saint John, Rothesay and Quispamsis.

"These are the areas that are higher risk…and so we would want people to be very suspicious in those areas," said Russell.

But she stressed it's possible for people to be bitten by a tick with Lyme disease no matter where they live and urged everyone to take precautions when outdoors, such as wearing long sleeves, pants and closed-toe shoes, using insect repellent with DEET and checking themselves for ticks once indoors.

Symptoms to watch for include a possible bullseye-shaped rash, fatigue and muscle aches and pains.

Family doctors may diagnose the disease based on symptoms, but the diagnosis can also be confirmed through laboratory tests.

The disease is treated with antibiotics over the course of about four weeks.

'Very serious' disease

Lyme disease in humans was only designated a nationally notifiable disease in 2009, making it a priority for monitoring and control efforts by the federal, provincial and territorial governments.

The New Brunswick Lyme Disease Strategy 2017 also includes ongoing collaboration, conducting surveillance, and enhancing guidelines for best practices "as necessary."

It comes on the heels of the federal government announcing plans to spend $4 million to fight Lyme disease through a new research network aimed at improving diagnosis and treatment.

Russell calls the federal initiative "a very good thing."

"It does show leadership and it does show strong initiative and sends a strong message from the federal government that this is a very serious emerging disease," she said.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton