Lyme Disease in Alberta – Wet Weather Raises Risk

by lmatthews on August 18, 2012

Daniel Fitzgerald ticks in alberta

University of Alberta graduate student, Daniel Fitzgerald, identified sixteen types of tick in the province, including ones carrying Lyme disease.

Alberta residents should be on the lookout for ticks this summer as a leading Canadian researcher warns of an impending increase in Lyme Disease in Alberta following heavy rains in the province. Spring rainfall was excessive in Alberta this year and the moisture-loving ticks already present in the usually dry climate are expected to become more common in the coming months.

Climate change makes Lyme disease a moving target as places that used to have dry summers are now increasingly wet, giving ticks more areas to call home.

Wetter Alberta Weather Increase Lyme Disease Risks

The researcher in question is George Chaconas, a University of Calgary professor who holds the Canada research chair in the Molecular Biology of Lyme Borreliosis. Chaconas noted that ticks may migrate to remote areas by choosing migratory birds as hosts but that these travelling ticks tend not to survive in Alberta’s dry climate, up until now. A recent five year study by University of Alberta graduate student, Daniel Fitzgerald, found that sixteen species of ticks were present in Alberta, adding two new inhabitants previously thought absent in the province. Ixodes scapularis, the Lyme disease-carrying tick is one of the sixteen found and Alberta has seen twenty-seven confirmed cases of Borreliosis since 1998. The eight cases last year more than doubled the usual annual number and many consider these cases to be the lucky ones who were accurately diagnosed.

Lyme Disease Reporting in Canada

Lyme disease is not tracked at a federal level in Canada, unlike in the US where the CDC monitors cases and tracks tick-endemic areas. Confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the US amount to some twenty to thirty thousand a year, although the CDC itself notes that this is likely only a slice of the real cases as many go unrecognized. Continued denial of the presence of Lyme disease in Canada meant that, for many years, patients struggled to be diagnosed and treated, often traveling to the US for private treatment instead. Recent reports have revealed a reluctance on the part of Canadian physicians to report Lyme disease cases, although tick surveys in various provinces have confirmed the spread of the infection, including demonstrating Alberta’s growing Lyme disease problem, and the Federal Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, is calling for a national policy on Lyme disease.

Lyme Disease Awareness in Alberta

Albertans are being advised to educate themselves about Lyme disease symptoms so that the infection can be spotted early and treated before significant tissue damage or severe complications arise. Not all cases of Lyme disease develop the characteristic bull’s-eye rash and many cases are dismissed as summer flu, arthritis, or even misdiagnosed as depression, schizophrenia, and multiple sclerosis.

george chaconas lyme disease researcher canada alberta ticks

Lyme disease researcher George Chaconas is aiming to raise awareness of the infection as ticks spread across Alberta.

Early tests for the infection are notoriously unreliable as antibody levels are often insufficient to generate a positive result. Chaconas himself said that the Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, is “very exotic and different,” and that it is able to hide from the immune system, a common theory amongst Lyme disease sufferers whose symptoms persist even after antibiotic treatment has supposedly cured the infection.

Eradicating a Zoonosis

The presence of mice and deer in towns and cities across Canada are blamed for the spread of Lyme disease-carrying ticks as they act as a reservoir for the zoonosis. Chaconas has plans to work on a way of eradicating the disease in these host animals so as to reduce the risk to humans and he even says “If you can wipe out the disease in mice, then the disease goes away.” Other carriers of Lyme disease bacteria, such as birds, reptiles, and other rodents do exist, however, so mouse genocide may not be the answer to Chaconas’ predicted Lyme disease epidemic in Alberta. Staying Lyme-alert appears warranted though, given the great conditions for ticks this year.

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