Lyme disease is ancient yet its bacterial origins have only been recently discovered. It is curable, but the treatment is controversial. It is spreading through oak trees as a result of climate change.
The connection between Lyme disease and ticks has been known for centuries yet the bacteria causing it was only identified in 1981. A visitor to New England wrote in 1638:
“There be infinite numbers of tikes hanging upon the bushes in summer time that will cleave to man’s garments and creep into his breeches eating themselves in a short time into the very flesh of a man.” Ouch.
The bite from an infected tick can cause a bull’s-eye rash to appear — or not, which can lead to misdiagnosis. Within a few weeks, a myriad of hellish
symptoms appear: pain in muscles, joints and tendons; heart palpitations and dizziness.
Unless treated early, acute neurological problems may emerge: facial palsy with the loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face, meningitis with severe headaches, neck stiffness, and sensitivity to light, memory loss, sleep disturbances, and mood changes.
Prompt treatment with antibiotics is crucial but the dosage, especially as time passes, is
controversial. Canadian doctors can’t agree on how long the antibiotics should be given.
They have to weigh bacterial resistance against high doses seen as the only hope. “It’s a very controversial topic,” says Dr. Michael Gardam, one of Ontario’s leading experts on infectious disease.
Rogue doctors who step beyond the accepted guidelines of 30 days duration have been probed by their colleges and in some cases forced to give up their licences. The chill created by the investigations has prompted doctors to withhold treatment, forcing desperate patients to the U.S.
Patients who go to the U.S. pay thousands of dollars for treatment but at least they’ll find one sympathetic ear in Dr. Maureen McShane. She knows Lyme disease intimately because she suffered from it herself. Dr. McShane was driven out of Canada because of her controversial treatments but she swears by them.
I first heard Dr. McShane on CBC radio in 2010 when she told of the horror she went through before treating herself with high doses of antibiotics. Since fleeing Canada, she said that most of her patients are Canadians with “nightmare stories” and some visit many specialists without receiving a diagnosis.
As well, patients who test negative for Lyme disease in Canada may test positive in the U.S. because of differences in interpreting the results.
The connection with climate change begins in Eastern Canada, where most Lyme cases occur, with improved growing conditions for oak trees.
White-tailed mice love the acorns from the tree and their numbers expand. Although mice are not affected by the bacteria, they act as carriers. Infected ticks then pass the bacteria from the mice to deer and any humans who happen to wander by.
As conditions for mice and deer improve, so do conditions for Lyme disease. “It’s been around for a fair while, but in isolated pockets,” said Patrick Leighton, a scientist at the
University of Montreal. “It’s really emerging now as more of an actual problem.”