Back in 1972, in the small town of Lyme, Conn., an epidemic of a strange form of arthritis left both the public and physicians confounded. The pain wasn’t consistent but came in waves; sometimes it resolved after a few months and other times it seemed to go on without end. This was definitely not rheumatoid arthritis. Though they had no idea of the cause, a new name was given to the condition: Lyme arthritis.
Today, we know the condition as Lyme disease and it is by far one of the most complex and frustrating diseases ever encountered. Since its discovery, the number of cases in Canada has risen significantly – 146 per cent between 2009 and 2012 – and there are worries this year may be a record in Canada.
The culprit is a corkscrew-like bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, named after the scientists who first isolated the genus, Amédée Borrel and the actual species, William Burgdorfer. Infection is blood-borne and follows three stages.
The first is localized in a specific area and is sometimes recognized by a bull’s eye rash accompanied with fever, chills, headache and stiffness in the joints and muscles. The second stage occurs when the bacterium spreads within the body leading to nerve pain, weakness if not paralysis of the face muscles and chest pain.
The third stage is the most problematic as it can lead to a myriad of symptoms including memory loss, learning disability, visual impairment and even depression. In a very small percentage of Stage 3 cases, the bacterium can infect the central nervous system, termed Lyme Neuroborreliosis. When this occurs, a person may encounter symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis as well as facial nerve paralysis, seizures and even strokes.
Despite the rather debilitating course of infection, the story of B. burgdoferi only gets worse. When researchers went looking for the bacterium, they could not find it in the general environment such as food and water. Going back to the infected, they realized there was one common denominator: They had all been bitten by an insect. However, the transmission vector wasn’t the potentially controllable mosquito; it was the troublesome pest the tick.
Ticks are quite literally a pain for almost every land creature on Earth. These blood-sucking parasites infect birds, rodents and large mammals, but they also seem to have an appetite for the human body. What makes them such a bother is their tendency to bury themselves inside the skin of their hosts in order to have a constant food supply. When they do, they can transmit a number of infections that may cause everything from mild flu-like symptoms to the potentially lethal encephalitis.
Because the disease is caused by a bacterium, antibiotic treatment is possible. But it has to be done early, within hours or a few days after a tick bite or invasion.
If the infection is allowed to progress past this timeline, treatment may fail in about 10 to 20 per cent of cases. In these situations, some of the symptoms in Stage 2 and 3 may occur, known as post-treatment Lyme disease Ssndrome (PRLDS).
Lyme disease is a serious problem for which there are few answers. Yet humans do have one advantage to help minimize the impact, and it may help you from getting ticked off this summer: prevention.
To stay safe, the most important advice is to wear loose-fitting, long and light-coloured clothing.
The use of insect repellents, including DEET, permethrin and certain botanical oils such as rose, clove and eucalyptus may offer added protection.
Even with these precautions, ticks may still find a way to the skin. So, after returning from an adventure in the wild, make sure to do a body check for any signs of a bite or a tick invasion. If you see evidence of a tick, make sure to remove it as soon as possible and contact a medical professional just to be sure.
Although these suggestions may not seem to be the easiest to follow and may hamper a summer trip, in light of the potential consequences, they are well worth the effort.
For those who might fear the outside because of ticks and Lyme disease, despite all the evidence, the rate of infection is still relatively low. Only a few hundred people suffer each year. By taking the right precautions, anyone can head out and savour the summer without worry. Besides, Canada’s wilds are beautiful this time of year. Go and enjoy them.
Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity’s bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro