New Brunswick

Microbiologist hopes Lyme disease hot zones will get new program's attention

A doctor and microbiologist investigating Lyme disease in the Maritimes is applauding the federal government's new Lyme disease research network aimed at improving diagnosis and treatment.

Parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia among 'risk' areas, according to Health Canada

In Eastern Canada, a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, can spread Lyme disease. (AP Photo/Victoria Arocho, File)

A doctor and microbiologist investigating Lyme disease in the Maritimes is applauding the federal government's new Lyme disease research network aimed at improving diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Todd Hatchette, the head of microbiology at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, said he supports the evidence-based approach of the $4-million initiative.

And Hatchette hopes the work will focus on areas where Lyme disease is most prevalent, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In New Brunswick, Grand Bay-Westfield, Saint John, Rothesay, Quispamsis, St Stephen, Saint Andrews, St. George and Grand Manan Island are all listed by Health Canada as "risk areas." These are defined as areas with a known risk of tick bites and Lyme disease or with a possible risk of tick bites and Lyme disease.

In Nova Scotia, identified risk areas include the Halifax Regional Municipality and parts of Lunenburg, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Pictou and Queens counties.

"I can't say what the government is planning to do, but if it were me I would focus on the areas where Lyme disease is most prevalent," said Hatchette.

"That's where you're going to have the biggest buy-in from everybody involved — from the clinicians who ware seeing the problem, from the patients who are getting the infection, and from the policy-makers who are interested in making sure that the best health care is provided."

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

Risk areas (hatched areas) are locations where the risk of tick bites and Lyme disease is known to occur, and where risk of tick bites and Lyme disease is possible. (Health Canada)
The new framework announced Tuesday by Health Minister Jane Philpott has three pillars: surveillance, guidelines and best practices, and public education and awareness.

"They're great," said Hatchette.

"We need to have a better idea of how many people are affected — what the burden of illness is  —  and try to characterize their symptoms and treatments," he said. "And when you do that, you may be able to generate specific questions that can be then addressed in a sound, scientific manner by the research network."

Educating patients in how to reduce their risk, and educating health-care providers in how to recognize and treat Lyme disease are also key, said Hatchette.

A tick bite may leave a bullseye-shaped rash on the skin. (CBC)
He encouraged people to wear light-coloured clothing when outdoors so they can see if any ticks are on them and to wear DEET-containing mosquito repellant, which also repels ticks. They should also check themselves for ticks once they get back inside, he said.

"If you are able to remove the tick as soon as it attaches, or even before it attaches, then your risk of Lyme disease is basically zero."

Anyone who finds a tick in an area where Lyme disease is common should see a health-care provider, said Hatchette.

Other risk areas across Canada include: southern Manitoba and western Ontario, southern Ontario, southeastern Ontario, southern Quebec and southern British Columbia, according to Health Canada.

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

"I think it's something that people need to be aware of," Hatchette said. "It's something we're going to hear more about, but it's not something that I would panic about at this point."

With files from Information Morning Saint John