HEALTH

A growing menace

Doctors debate the spread of Lyme disease

NORA UNDERWOOD September 10 1990
HEALTH

A growing menace

Doctors debate the spread of Lyme disease

NORA UNDERWOOD September 10 1990

A growing menace

HEALTH

Doctors debate the spread of Lyme disease

In late August, 1988, teacher Diane Kindree was working in the garden of her West Vancouver home when an insect bit her on the back of her right shoulder. Kindree, now 37, quickly forgot about the incident but, a week later, she began suffering from nausea, fatigue and headaches. At first, Kindree says, she thought that she had the flu. But during the next four months, she developed a constant ringing in her ears, dizzy spells

and stiff joints. Kindree added that, no matter what various doctors prescribed, she continued to develop new illnesses. Then, 10 months after she had first become sick, Kindree was hospitalized because pains in her legs and other arthritic symptoms made it impossible for her to walk without a cane. Only then did a doctor correctly diagnose her condition as borreliosis, or Lyme disease, a debilitating bacterial infection that she contracted from the tick bite. Said Kindree, who is still taking antibiotics two years after her illness began: “I was a healthy person and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t get out of bed or even walk. It was very frightening.” Since 1982, when American medical authorities first began compiling statistics on the infection, there have been more than 21,000 reported cases in the United States. In Canada,

where scientists first identified Lyme disease in 1977, there are only about 100 known cases, according to the federal health department, but the disease is only reportable in Ontario. Officials with the department’s Ottawa-based Laboratory Centre for Disease Control say that they are still studying the tick that transmits Lyme disease in order to determine the extent of its habitat and its potential for spreading the infection. Some doctors, however, claim that

Lyme disease is already common but frequently misdiagnosed because it produces such a wide range of symptoms. Said Ajax, Ont., doctor Phillip Williams, who has treated numerous sufferers of Lyme disease: “It is a relatively common disease that people are just waking up to.”

According to Kindree, public concern over the disease has risen dramatically in the year since she co-founded a victims support group in British Columbia starting with only three members. Currently, the group has 120 members, all of them suffering from confirmed or suspected cases of Lyme disease, and she said that she receives 30 to 40 calls a week from people who suspect that they have contracted the disease. Dr. Susan Mackenzie, an epidemiologist at the Centre for Disease Control, said that

cases of the disease have been documented in all but three provinces, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, as well as the northern territories.

Although medical experts disagree over the prevalence of the disease in Canada, most say that they are certain that it is transmitted by two types of ticks that feed on the blood of mammals. Ian Barker, an associate professor of wildlife disease at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says that the ticks normally inhabit tall grasses or low brush found in wooded areas. When an individual tick is about to progress from the larva to nymph stage of its development, and from the nymph stage to adulthood, it must find a host bird or mammal from which it can draw a single meal of blood. Ticks approaching adulthood typically attach themselves to larger mammals, such as deer, horses, cows and humans.

Adult ticks, which are brown and less than one-eighth of an inch long, bury their heads in the skin of their host in order to obtain blood. If undetected, they can feed over a period of several days and, in the process, transfer to their host a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is this micro-organism that causes Lyme disease, which American scientists started tracking in 1975 after a group of children in Old Lyme, Conn., developed a series of unusual rashes, headaches and painful, stiff joints.

Some experts contend that the ticks that harbor the bacteria do not flourish in most areas of Canada. As a result, they say, the risk of contracting Lyme disease in the country is low. One of the few areas where the ticks are common is Long Point, a 30-km-long sandy peninsula that juts into Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario. Barker said that protection against the ticks is provided by light-colored clothes, which can be tucked into socks and make the parasites visible. Barker also says that spraying insect repellent with the ingredient DEET on clothes will help keep ticks away. He added that when a possible victim is indoors, he should thoroughly check his body. If he finds a tick, he should carefully remove it with a pair of tweezers to prevent mouth parts from remaining lodged in the skin.

The ticks are difficult to detect because their bite is painless, according to experts. In most cases, a bite will cause nothing more than a rash on the skin. As well as nausea and headaches, long-term effects of a bite from an infected tick may include gastrointestinal problems, headaches, profound fatigue, joint pain, arthritis and short-term memory loss. But doctors say that, if caught early, Lyme disease can be effectively treated with such orally administered antibiotics as tetracycline and penicillin. In later stages, doctors usually administer larger doses of antibiotics intravenously for longer periods of time. But until researchers develop a vaccine against Lyme disease, experts say that prevention is the best means of curbing the spread of the insidious disease.

NORA UNDERWOOD with ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver

ADRIENNE WEBB