The Sunday Magazine

Lyme disease: The first epidemic of climate change

As global temperatures climb, disease-carrying ticks are moving into new areas. Journalist Mary Beth Pfeiffer reports on how human activity has propelled this growing menace, and how modern medicine has underestimated its danger.
Mary Beth Pfeiffer is the author of Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change (Jim Smith Photography, Island Press)

This segment originally aired on May 6, 2018.

It might be time to add another activity to the depressing litany of things that seem likely to disappear because of climate change. You may think twice before taking a carefree walk through a meadow and feeling the tall grass brush against your legs, or letting your kids loose to frolic in the woods to explore in nature. 

It's not because meadows or forests are disappearing the way glaciers are. Increasingly in Canada, as our temperatures rise, those places are becoming habitat for the black-legged ticks that carry Lyme disease.

In the past three decades, black-legged ticks have crossed the border into Canada and crept hundreds of kilometres northwards. Scientists estimate that before long, 80 percent of Canadians will live in areas colonized by the tick.

An adult black-legged tick. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

And cases of Lyme disease, a debilitating disease that's been notoriously difficult to diagnose, have spiked dramatically in recent years. But as Canada's former chief public health officer, Gregory Taylor, admitted in 2016, public health officials really didn't know the full extent of Lyme disease in Canada and there is no consensus on how best to diagnose or treat it.

That would ring true to Nicole Bottles, a 24-year-old woman from Victoria, who shared her story at a Lyme disease conference in Ottawa two years ago. 

Mary Beth Pfeiffer is a veteran investigative journalist based in Poughkeepsie, New York, who spoke with Lyme disease patients and researchers in the course of writing her new book, called Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change

Mary Beth Pfeiffer joined guest host Laura Lynch from a studio in Albany, New York. Listen to the full interview at the top of the page.