Lyme Disease in Australia

by lmatthews on July 30, 2012

lyme disease australia tick map nsw queensland

Official map showing distribution of ticks in Australia - but do they also carry Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is rare in Australia, according to the official stance which also holds that those cases that do arise are due to exposure to Borrelia-infected ticks in another country. However, recent media reports of Lyme disease patients who can only have been infected in Australia itself are turning this convention on its head, so is there Lyme disease in Australia or are patients being misdiagnosed?

UPDATE: Protests held in mid-September in Sydney may be helpful in updating Lyme disease policy in Australia.

Lyme Disease Sufferer Goes Public

The latest high profile Lyme disease sufferer in Australia is a man called Len Balsdon of Gin Gin who has not left Australia for twenty-seven years, making his diagnosis seemingly a pretty clear indication that Lyme disease does exist in the country. Mr Balsdon has been sick for around eight years after suffering a tick bite in the Wongi state forest near Maryborough. The man picked off the tick, leaving it little time to transmit infection, causing further scepticism in the medical community as it is thought that at least twenty-four hours are usually needed for Lyme disease transmission. However, Balsdon then began suffering from a variety of symptoms connected to Lyme disease.

Evidence of Lyme Disease

Fatigue, joint aches and pains, and even dermatologic manifestations of Lyme disease arose over the years following. Mr Balsdon’s doctor, Andrew Ladhams has said that the number of patients with similar stories, symptoms, and positive Lyme disease test results has confirmed the presence of Borrelia in Australia in his mind. although others have questioned his use of non-accredited laboratories when testing for the infection. Talking to the Australian press Dr Ladhams said that some 60-80% of the fifteen to twenty patients he sees a week with suspected Lyme disease are confirmed as having the infection which caused Mr Balsdon to quit his job when his short-term memory loss began to impact his work. As with so many Lyme disease patients, the stricken man first became aware of the infection through a documentary on television where the symptoms described matched his own experiences.

Misdiagnosis of Lyme Disease in Australia

This Australian man could be considered lucky as he managed to track down a sympathetic doctor who could order the requisite Lyme disease tests and then, after confirmation of the active infection, begin appropriate antibiotic treatment. As many doctors continue to follow the official line of there being no Lyme disease in Australia there are surely more patients suffering unnecessarily without testing or treatment. Not considering Lyme disease as a differential diagnosis can mean that patients are misdiagnosed with arthritis, depression, and even multiple sclerosis or other condition which could then worsen the infection through inappropriate use of steroids or other medications affecting immunity.


Lyme Disease – Acquired Overseas

One Australian biological testing company has reported a recent uptick in requests for Lyme disease testing which they only began offering ten years ago and which some claim is still inadequate in accurately diagnosing Lyme disease. Whilst Australian authorities continue denying the presence of an infected tick population in the country the likelihood is that serological tests will not check for the bacterial strains actually causing patients’ symptoms. The official stance remains that more Lyme disease cases are being seen in returning visitors from overseas but a New South Wales expert panel concluded last year that it could not be ruled out that Australian ticks were infected with Borrelia and responsible for some Lyme disease cases, although there was little evidence for this. The infection is not a notifiable diseaase in Australia, meaning that there is a paucity of data on cases around the country.

Changing Lyme Disease Thinking in Australia

It appears that the ‘lack of evidence’ cited in such reports is self-perpetuating as no government funding will likely be provided for research into a disease that is officially denied. Patient action and advocacy seems to be fairly key in getting local and federal authorities to look into the situation, as has happened in the US and Canada in recent years. University researchers also often play a part as flagging and tick-checking in a systematic fashion leading to medical journal publication and irrefutable evidence of Lyme disease in a local area can start to change minds and policy in terms of the infection.

Lyme Disease Testing

Unfortunately, such research takes time and so patients in Australia will continue to be at the mercy of unaccredited laboratories, overseas laboratories, and doctors who deny Lyme disease until overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary. Doctors who rely on positive results from unaccredited laboratories to begin treatment for Lyme disease also face the potential to be reported for malpractice or unprofessional conduct but they have little option as accredited testing for Lyme disease in Australia is almost non-existent.

Read more about Lyme Disease in Australia – Ticks, Testing, and Politics

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