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When Sally Bowen first left Toronto for a man she loved and a sheep farm in rural Ontario, she knew she was signing up for a lifetime of rewarding hard work. She expected there would be some hardships and had anticipated sleepless weeks spent keeping orphaned lambs alive, and backbreaking days weeding under a sweltering August sun.

Nothing could prepare her, however, for the lingering effects of what an American specialist eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease or some other tick-borne illness. Bowen’s case is so severe, that for decades, she has been chronically tired and unable to eat without a feeding tube.

“It was 1996 and, at the time, we had about 1,100 breeding ewes,” Bowen said, recounting how that spring she was responsible for the exhausting job of bottle-feeding roughly 160 orphan lambs. “Towards the end of the foster lambing, I got incredibly ill. I'm not usually a sickie ... but I collapsed and (had) flu-like symptoms for almost a month.”

It was soon clear that, in addition to common Lyme symptoms like exhaustion and aching joints, her stomach muscles had stopped working properly, making eating impossible. While the severity of Bowen's symptoms are rare, experts warn that cases like hers could become more common as climate change puts farmers, foresters, and others who work the land at greater risk of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Adult ticks are sesame seed-sized insects (young ticks are smaller) that drink blood from birds and mammals to survive, and prefer brushy, wooded habitats. While several species exist, deer ticks and western blacklegged ticks are carriers of the bacteria that causes Lyme, Borrelia burgdorferi, and can transmit it to people in their bite.

“What's happening is that ticks are expanding north, and their populations are growing very quickly,” said Robert Colautti, a professor of ecology and genomics at Queen's University.

Once found mainly in a small corner of southern Ontario, the insects now thrive across the Maritimes, in southern Québec and Ontario, and in Manitoba. Western blacklegged ticks are common in southern B.C., including the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island.

Once limited to a small corner of southern Ontario, Lyme disease-bearing ticks are now common across wide swaths of Canada. Map by Health Canada

Their rapid spread is largely due to warmer and longer springs, summers, and autumns. Warm days allow the insects to reproduce more quickly and rapidly boost their population, explained Nicholas Ogden, senior research scientist at the Public Health Agency of Canada. Migratory birds arriving in Canada from the U.S. also act like a “conveyor belt,” bringing the bugs north from areas where they have long been common.

"Ticks ... carry a variety of microbes in their saliva and in their guts. There's a whole bunch of diseases that are tracked not as intensely as Lyme disease," says @QueensU professor Robert Colautti.

Climate change is warming Canada about twice as fast as the global average, and the provinces with Lyme-bearing ticks have seen their average annual temperatures increase by roughly 1.3 C, according to a 2019 report by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“It seems that the warming has allowed more of Canada to become a zone in which ticks can complete their life cycle,” Ogden said. Moreover, forest cover has increased in tick-prone areas since the 1950s as the number of farms has decreased and agricultural land has gone fallow, bolstering tick habitat.

Added to this population explosion is the prevalence of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, which accumulates in rodents and birds before infecting ticks and humans. For instance, in some parts of the U.S., roughly 70 per cent of ticks carry the microbe, significantly increasing the risk of exposure to people, he explained.

In Canada, the number of people diagnosed with Lyme has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2009, about 140 people were confirmed with the illness. By 2019, 2,630 people had the disease, Health Canada reported.

However, Colautti and Ogden emphasized Lyme disease isn't the only reason Canadians should avoid tick bites since the insects can also carry several harmful and lesser-known pathogens.

“Ticks ... carry a variety of microbes in their saliva and in their guts. There's a whole bunch of diseases that are tracked not as intensely as Lyme disease,” explained Colautti.

Those include illnesses like Rocky Mountain spotted fever — a bacterial infection that can severely harm internal organs — and the Powassan virus, which attacks the nervous system. Colautti is leading an international project, partnered with the Mitac Globalink research initiative, to develop a rapid, field-based testing system that will make it easier for doctors and public health officials to catch and treat tick-borne illnesses early.

Despite her illness, Sally Bowen is an avid gardener, manages winter lamb sales, and helps produce knitted products for Topsy Farm, her family sheep farm. Photo by Diane Irwin

It's possible one of these other diseases could have caused Bowen's life-altering symptoms, the farmer said. She will never know for sure: The bacteria or virus that caused her symptoms was long gone years before doctors identified a tick bite as the likely cause of her illness. At the time, she added, few Canadian doctors even considered the possibility that Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness could be causing her symptoms.

Still, Ogden said that farmers, foresters, and others who spend time in the bush shouldn't avoid the outdoors. With adequate precautions, like bug repellant and regular checks for ticks, being outside and active is far healthier than sitting indoors out of fear.

“People should be aware, but not necessarily terrified of getting out in the woods. Getting out in the countryside is an inherently healthy thing to do,” he said. “It's important to recognize the risk and be aware of how to minimize getting bitten by ticks.”

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There are several factors that make the ignored pandemic of tick-borne illnesses worse. We now see how devastating vector-borne diseases can be and ticks account for about 75% of these. We know that there is likely 90% - 95% under-detection in Canada [Lloyd/ Hawkins 2018] and the western zone in Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates in the world with an estimated 3,204/100,00 population in 2019 when the under-detection is taken into account. The incidence of Lyme is now higher than all our other reportable infectious diseases combined including influenza. Doctor’s don’t know what they are dealing with long-lived biofilm forming microbes that can cause neurological disease. Lyme is the infectious disease equivalent of cancer. The paradigm of modern medicine is to palliate, not cure disease. Shareholder preferences are driving things and shareholders are not interested in vaccines, new antibiotics or cures. The goal in medicine is to develop new treatments, and lifetime annuities for pharmaceutical companies. Historically the root cause of inflammation was usually found to be infection but medicine has lost its way and is no longer looking for root causes of disease. The rheumatologist is not interested in finding the root cause of your rheumatoid arthritis nor is the neurologist is interested in finding the root cause of your MS. Medicine has known for over 40 years that Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease can cause Alzheimer’s but have chosen to ignore this. Dr. Stephen Phillips has treated over 100 physicians with complex Lyme disease and 20,000 others says the Lyme doesn’t just mimic MS it is MS. Doctor’s are telling us not to worry because they are coming out with new treatments all the time, powerful immunosuppressant. The pharmaceutical industry pays for research, medical schools and political parties. Why would anyone want to search for cures and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Infectious disease doctors have abandoned family docs and don’t have to live with these patients. Medical specialists live in silos and this should remind people of the parable of the blind men examining the elephant. Patients are just road kill on the way to profit for the pharmaceutical and long-term disability insurance industry. Autopsies, tissue banking and pathologist with microbiological training could help resolve some of this but autopsies are seldom done anymore because they are expensive. Physicians can do something the rest of us can’t; they can bury their mistakes.

I've taken note of Rob Murray's comments and added them to my list of clues I have collected for understanding the health care system. It seems to me that the aim of our drug-company-controlled health care system is to make us 1/2 well so that we have to keep coming back for more expensive drugs. (cf. the health care company, "Helthweiser" in Atwood's "Oryx and Crake")
The Russians have developed a way of healing the weakened body systems with a radiant light. Why don't we look into it?

It is very likely that the incidence of tick borne disease, especially Lyme disease is much greater then anyone realizes. I got lucky. From the 1980's to the present I have regularly spent time at the summer house I inherited from a relative which is located within the "hot zone" around Lyme, Connecticut .

Over the years I have only found attached ticks 6 or 8 times on my body and generally removed them within a couple of hours because their bite sets up an allergic itch reaction in me. What has been worse are the tick nymph bites - the nymphs are invisible to the human eye but their bite itches ferociously and causes a burning sensation. You know pretty quickly if you have a nymph bite but you can't see it to remove it so you don't know if it is still roaming around your body biting more than once but the bites often come in clusters, and with me at least, generally around my ankles and feet. They may not be mobile enough to travel very far - unlike their adult versions. Despite the adult ticks bites I never developed any of the classic symptoms of Lyme disease. However a few years ago when I came down with septic pneumonia the hospital treating me ran a lot of blood tests and at some point they identified some kind of marker that indicated the presence of Lyme disease. They did not tell me if it was still active - just that I had once had it. Researchers are undecided about whether or not the nymphs can transmit any of the tick diseases.

I have survived into my '80s without developing any of the known symptoms (knock wood.)

As for the notion that MS is caused by ticks/Lyme disease I have not heard that particular theory and regard it with some doubt. What I have heard is that there seems to be a growing suspicion that MS could be the result of a viral attack that appeared to cure itself but has lain in wait to erupt later. Viruses are increasingly thought to be the trigger for a wide range mysterious symptoms implicating the autoimmune system.

Back to ticks - using bug spray on shoes, boots, socks, pant legs is pretty much mandatory if outdoors rustling around in brush, grasses wild fields where deer and mice are running around. I've seen rabbits festooned with swollen ticks as well. On the east Coast - possibly in Quebec and Ontario, Moose are so loaded with ticks that some are dying from the infestations. We might lose the species if we cannot find a way to help them rid themselves of the plague. In the Mid Atlantic coast where the white tail deer are proliferating in the urban fringes, forestry and park managers have been installing what they call 4 poster feeders, baited with corn/grains and equipped with four upright posts saturated with the potent Permethrin pesticide. To reach the feed the dear have to put their heads in between the posts where they pick up pesticide on their heads and necks. There has also been considerable effort to "cull" the overpopulation of deer. Not a solution that finds favor with animal activists. Many of North America's tick vectors (intermediate hosts which harbor the diseases so devastating to humans) cannot be easily controlled - without devastating other animal and insect populations.

It is possible that new vaccine technology or gene manipulation may be a viable line of defense against our viral and insect borne diseases. Surely a more profitable line of research for Big Pharma than their increasingly expensive, bizarre and side effect laden "medications" for common human ailments'

Nymphs feed on rodents and likely have a higher rate of infection than the adults. The blood of deer will neutralize the infection. Tick bites are painless and don't itch although a few people are fortunate and are allergic to the tick saliva, so they have an early warning. Spider bites are painful and often there is necrosis at the centre. Ticks carry powerful anti-inflammatories and anticoagulants in their saliva. Less than half of those bitten recall a tick bite or had an observable rash. For whatever reason the four-poster solution only resulted in a 5% drop in tick population and no reduction in tick bites. Check out Dr. Al Miller's YouTube videos on how closely the tick distribution maps follow the incidence of neurologic disease such as MS.