Though summer doesn't officially start for another three weeks, the weather for most of Canada suggests the season has already arrived. But with the warmer temperatures comes another less enjoyable reality: insects.
While most Canadians are aware of black flies, fleas and mosquitoes, it seems the tick is quickly taking over as our most feared pest.
At one time, ticks were not considered to be all that much of a threat. The worst expectations were a rash and pain in the area of the bite. But over the last few decades, several human infections have been linked to these multi-legged creatures. The impact on both short and long term human health suggest they may soon become public insect enemy number one.
The main pathogen in ticks is the bacterium known as Borrelia, which causes Lyme disease. The illness is getting significant attention these days as cases continue to rise year to year.
The process starts when a tick gets under your skin. If the insect is not pulled out within a day, the bacteria are released into the surrounding environment. Once free, the microbes begin to spread throughout the body.
Usually our immune systems can deal with this type of microbial invasion, but Borrelia has an impeccable ability to avoid the immune defence forces. Thankfully, rapid antibiotic treatment is sufficient to kill the bacterium. However, if the illness is misdiagnosed or comes too late, the bacterium can infect the heart, nervous system and joints. Once this occurs, it may take months to years of treatment to finally clear the infection.
Borrelia is just one of many pathogens found in ticks. Thankfully, few have made it to Canada. But, two types of infectious agents seem to have begun to concern public health officials. They haven't caused a large number of cases, but as seen with Lyme Disease, this could change quickly and take us completely off guard.
The first infectious agent is a parasite known as Babesia. It's been a known human ailment for thousands of years, though it has taken a back seat to other similar pathogens such as malaria, Toxoplasma and Cryptosporidium, which had higher case loads and wider prevalence in the environment. But over the last few years, Babesia has garnered the attention of public health authorities in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
The parasite causes an illness known as babesiosis. It's a rather troublesome disease that mimics malaria. At first you suffer from chills, sweats, headache, sore muscles and joints. But there is a much more serious side to the infection, particularly in those who have weakened immune systems. This can include potentially lethal conditions such as acute respiratory, liver, spleen and kidney failure, as well as congestive heart disease. Much like malaria, there are treatments to combat the disease, and when used early, a full recovery can be expected.
Canada was formerly thought to be free of Babesia, as it was only detected in various parts of the U.S. and Europe. But in 2015, the first case appeared in Manitoba, suggesting the parasite had somehow crossed the border.
Although this was only one case, researchers at the time warned there may be a much larger population of people who may have suffered from babesiosis. In 2016, a surveillance of ticks and blood donors revealed the pathogen was present in four of the five provinces mentioned above: Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Whether this will translate into an explosion of cases remains to be seen.
The other tickborne concern is called Powassan virus. Named after the Ontario location where it was first identified in 1958, this virus has proven to cause a fast and potentially lethal infection. As soon as the virus enters the bloodstream from a tick, it heads straight to the brain, and then the nervous system and brain. If a person is lucky, the only symptoms will be a headache and fever. But the infection can worsen to cause encephalitis, paralysis and internal bleeding.
At the moment, there have not been any outbreaks or cases of Powassan virus in Canada, but the number of cases in northeastern U.S. continues to rise. Attempts to find the virus in Canada have shown it's circulating in the east. Because of the risk, health officials are getting prepared with guidelines for diagnosis to ensure the best care can be offered. As with Babesia, we haven't seen a rise in cases, but it is expected to happen in the near future.
In all three cases of infections, there is no vaccine, meaning you need to take your health into your own hands. While seeking medical attention upon finding a tick in your skin is the best option — and don't forget to bring the tick for lab analysis — nothing can beat prevention. After all, if you don't get bit, you don't need to worry.
For the most part, the actions needed to stay safe are no different than avoiding mosquito bites. Make sure to wear long sleeves and pants, and if possible, make them light coloured so you can see the tick with the naked eye. Since some of the species are only a few millimetres in size, having a good contrast can help. Also, be sure to tuck in those socks. Then, on exposed skin, use an insect repellent with DEET. If chemicals are not your thing, more natural options proven to help exist including lemon eucalyptus oil.
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Even if you follow these suggestions, make sure to do a full tick check when you get back from being in a wooded or grassy area. If you happen to bring the tick into the home, you're still at risk.
If you do happen to come across one of these insects, you may wish to save it and bring it to your local public health authority. They are constantly on the lookout for infections, and most likely will appreciate your contribution to learn more about the risk in your area. This in turn can help to understand the risks and also how to spread the word on how to stay safe.
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