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Tick talk with Back Roads Bill and Mary Beth Pfeiffer

Staying informed about the risks and ways to mitigate them means less fear and a more relaxed adventure on the back roads, says Bill

We are really going outside now and you may wish to pay a little more attention to ticks and Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is spreading rapidly around the globe as ticks move into places they could not survive before including Northern Ontario. With the impacts of climate change upon us, it is within our reading area and we should be aware.

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Ticks, some of whom carry the pathogenic bacteria that causes Lyme, can now survive in environments where they would have frozen to death 30 years ago. In North America, Lyme disease is transmitted (spread) mainly by two species of ticks: Blacklegged tick (sometimes called the deer tick), Ixodes scapularis and the Western blacklegged tick, Ixodes pacificus. The good news is that there’s a lot of new research coming out about stopping and treating tick-borne illnesses, and a book worth reading connecting the dots between climate change, ticks, sick people, and policy.

Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change documents the human contribution to the dangerous spread of Lyme disease to dozens of countries and multitudes of people. I contacted Mary Beth Pfeiffer the award-winning investigative journalist in Ulster County, New York.

She said, “This is an illness that has been minimized, underestimated, and politicized.” She interweaves numerous strands of research - into the influence of climate change on the Lyme invasion, the disease, the pathogen, the vectors and the harrowing impacts borne by some sufferers.”

Lyme disease is an ominous and growing threat in many parts of Canada, the United States and dozens of other countries. In the U.S., officials now put the yearly count of Lyme disease infections at about 500,000.

“Those numbers have increased relentlessly since the disease was recognized in the 1970s. Canada is especially at risk with ticks moving to more places as the climate warms. Scientists have documented an undeniable northward migration into many provinces.”

Pfeiffer begins by tracing Lyme’s spread in time immemorial when the responsible bacterium, Borrelia burdorferi, made its first appearance in Lyme, Connecticut. In addition to describing Lyme’s insidious symptom progression, she takes the medical profession within a United States context to task for following inadequate Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and thereby underestimating the disease’s true deadly impact.

She challenges medical dogma which holds that Lyme disease is straightforward to diagnose and treat.

Relying on more than 300 scientific articles and dozens of expert interviews, the book exposes the failure of government and medicine to prevent rapidly spreading infection, address poor diagnostic tests, and help many thousands of patients whose symptoms - body pain, crippling fatigue, and neurological, psychiatric, and memory issues, linger long after treatment. (See the Poignant Story subsection below.)

“This book throws new light on one more danger caused by climate change. Pfeiffer points out the importance not only of combating ticks but also the need for doctors to respond quickly and provide appropriate treatment. It is the first true epidemic of climate change, it reveals the full scope of Lyme’s devastating reach both currently and potentially as temperatures warm in places where ticks didn’t previously exist," says Jane Goodall, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace in an endorsement of the book.

“Because laboratory tests often fail to diagnose patients early--or tick-bites may not be seen--many people go on to develop long-term and often disabling conditions. They suffer fatigue, muscle and joint pain, memory and cognitive problems, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and even heart problems. Some 10 to 20 per cent of cases yearly lead to what is called post-treatment Lyme disease; some now call it long-haul Lyme," Pfeiffer said.

“People also need to be their own best advocate. Read up on Lyme disease; I recommend the website. Seek care at the first sign of infection. Research is proceeding toward better diagnostics and treatments--but significant change is several years away," she adds.

Pfeiffer recommends watching this trailer and the release of the full video, The Quiet Epidemic on May 2, just past.

“I am always delighted to talk about how to avoid Lyme disease and thanks for linking to the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation. We are grateful to have Back Roads Bill stress the very important message about safety," says President of CanLyme, Janet Sperling.

“There’s no question that the spread of ticks is related to climate change. The problem is that it’s not a simple linear relationship. Lyme ticks have been present in northern Ontario for decades," Sperling says. "Lyme ticks are very sensitive to humidity as well as temperature. A further complication is a photoperiod. In a place like Northern Ontario, I would expect the ticks to increase in number provided the climate remains somewhat warm and damp.

"Lyme ticks can’t tolerate blast furnace-type heat. There is also the very interesting question of behaviour of both ticks and people.

"If the ticks are able to go into the leaf litter during the very hottest part of the day and come out at dawn and dusk, extreme heat may not be a critical factor. Since the Lyme ticks are found much farther north in Europe, I think it’s naive to suppose that photoperiod will prevent ticks from establishing in Northern Ontario. However, this is very much a question for scientists to study in the lab and for citizens scientists to keep track of in their own backyards."

As for safety tips, avoiding tick bites is critical. Unlike mosquitoes, we can avoid having ticks attach which prevents disease transmission.

“Keeping to the middle of the trail is a great idea if you’re hiking in tick habitat. But, what about the people who are doing the brushing alongside the trail? For the people working outdoors, it is really important to consider wearing permethrin-treated clothing," says Sperling. "Unfortunately, it’s not easy for people to get permethrin-treated clothing in Canada! Mark’s Work Warehouse sometimes has permethrin-treated clothing available and sometimes not.”

One tip learned on the back roads DEET is considered a less effective tick repellent, consider applying icaridin versus permethrin on your clothes. Repellents, like DEET and icaridin, disorient and repel insects, but permethrin attacks an insect’s nervous system and kills it.

Repellents are applied to the skin or clothing to provide a level of protection for a few hours, however, permethrin should not be used on skin but rather on clothing, where it can provide dry, invisible and odourless protection for weeks or years.

We are going outside be a little more now be mindful; tuck our shirts into our pants and your pants tucked into your longer socks.

Tick checks are very important at the end of the day and preferably with a shower after. Remember that ticks love nooks and crannies (including even your tummy button!).

Also when you get home take your outside clothes off in the porch, garage or before entering the house and never sit on the edge of the bed and do the same.

Here’s a more comprehensive list on how to avoid ticks. Find out more and subscribe to the newsletter here.

Poignant Story

I interviewed Margaret Cox from the Haliburton area, this is her story in brief.

It was a beautiful day, or so I thought. It was finally sunny and warming up, with snow in the forecast for the next day, I decided to get outdoors and go for a hike off the beaten path.

I dressed appropriately in long pants. I enjoyed the sunny vistas and walked 5 km. Later that night I noticed I had what appeared to be a scratched leg. A mere 24 hours later I found myself at the local hospital emergency with an infected leg, and apparently a tick in the centre of the red area. It was removed, but not before it broke apart in the process. I was given two antibiotic pills and sent home, with instructions to go to the ER or my family DR if I have any symptoms.

Ten days later I went to my family doctor and began what has been a two-year-plus journey of trying to unlock the mystery of Lyme and co-infections and ponder the benefits and challenges of living in a country with publicly funded health care while experiencing such marginalization and lack of effective treatment.

The good news is I’m getting better – it’s been quite a journey and I have gotten worse before getting better. I am currently on a cocktail of three antibiotics and anti-malarial and anti-fungal medication.

I have learned through trial and error and international experts that I need to now eat a specialized diet to get better – gluten, dairy and sugar-free.

Additionally, I have found that while eating lots of leafy green veggies is part of the healing process – that unless they’re organic they make you sicker. One’s body has a real challenge with Lyme – because the bacteria not only have the most complicated DNA of any bacteria – and it knows how to hide in your body and adapt, but when they die in you – they create a toxic load making you susceptible to toxin overload from things that never bothered you in the past.

The new clinic that I am being treated in is private but at least it is located in Toronto, and I am not travelling to the US for appropriate treatment.

The statistics are alarming - blacklegged ticks are on the increase and have a 25-75 per cent rate of carrying Lyme - migrating birds, deer and rodents are often hosts. Those ticks only need four degrees Celsius to be active.

My tick, which was tested positive for borrelia (aka Lyme) - something I found out eight weeks after its removal, had crept at least a foot up my sock. I now make sure to tuck my pants into my socks, not as a fashion statement but as Lyme protection. I have become part of a network of sufferers.

Lyme symptomology is vast – I experienced extreme joint pain, sleeplessness, emotionality, cognition and memory challenges, and extreme fatigue. I know others who have had their organs attacked, others with full-blown amnesia and others unable to walk – all because of these little bacteria - and our unwillingness to collectively tackle this growing epidemic through proper prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Be proactive, not reactive, prepare more and fear less. We are with nature on the back roads.