If you’re an Australian who loves getting outdoors, regardless of whether it’s just for working, bushwalking, bird watching or the occasional holiday, you are probably at risk of being bitten by a tick – and that could have much more dire consequences than you’d expect.
Many sufferers of Lyme disease live with the symptoms without knowing they have contracted it, and this situation is exacerbated by the vast majority of health practitioners who don’t recognise its presence or have the ability to diagnose it.
Tennille Pooley, an awareness advocate for Lyme disease, is a sufferer; so too are her husband and four children. While unsure of the exact vector, Pooley believes she contracted Lyme via sexual transmission from her husband. Even more concerning is the possibility that each of her children contracted the disease in utero.
“Most people don’t realise the potential this disease has to pass from human to human,” Pooley says. “Most think it is only transmitted via ticks.”
Lyme Disease: Causes and Vectors
In places like the US, it’s accepted that Lyme disease is caused when bacteria from the genus borrelia infect a human. The spiral-shaped microorganism penetrates muscles, joints and major organs. It’s ability to also penetrate connective tissue produces the potential for a multi-system infections through the body, resulting in devastating consequences.
Many animals may act as a host for borrelia, which can be found in their bloodstream. It’s easy to see how a range of blood-sucking parasites might transmit these bacteria from one host to another, but for a long time Lyme disease has been primarily associated with ticks.
Important note: Ticks may in fact be the chief cause of Lyme disease in Australia, but chances of contracting the disease is reduced if ticks are removed safely. All care must be taken not to squeeze the tick’s body during removal. Instead, a fine pair of tweezers should be used to grasp the tick as close to the bite as possible, before pulling upward with steady, even pressure.
Beyond other parasites and the possibility of sexual transmission, Pooley also warns of the dangers of eating undercooked meat, like steak.
Just about any situation where the blood of another host is transferred to a new one creates the potential for infection. As a result, the incidence of the disease can be accompanied by co-infections from bacteria like mycoplasma, bartonella, coxeiella, ehrlichia and rickettsia; viruses such as parvovirus, Epstein Barr and cytomegalovirus; and parasites like babesia and theileria.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Early stage symptoms in humans may present as headaches, muscle aches, pains in joints, lethargy, fever and flu like symptoms, a comprised immune system with enlarged lymph glands and occasionally a circular rash around the tick bite, or slowly increasing neurological challenges.
Late stage symptoms may present as chronic fibromyalgia or similarly to neurological conditions, degenerative organic brain conditions and muscular degenerative disorders. The infection may mimic other conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, autism, seizures, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, lupus, motor neurone disease or chronic fatigue syndrome.
In Pooley’s case, she was eventually wheelchair bound as a result of the disease and her children have experienced seizures, cognitive decline, vision impairment and a range of physical complaints.
Ro Privett, an outdoor educator who contracted Lyme disease, says, “One of the worst symptoms is insomnia”.
“Not only is trouble sleeping difficult in itself, the circulating neurotoxins build up overnight to cause a heavy drunk-like state of affairs in the morning. Suffers awake exhausted and groggy. For most, the slowly become a shadow of who they once were, with diminished drive and motivation and day to day life is all about managing their reduced energy levels.”
Due to the unrecognised status of the disease, many suffers find they are misdiagnosed with another medical condition and some may never be diagnosed correctly.
“Sufferers can spend years consulting with dozens of different specialists often to be told the problem is psychosomatic, it’s ‘all in your head’. This inevitably leads to depression and feelings of isolation,” explains Privett.
In Pooley’s case, she fought to be taken seriously over many years, spending around $100,000 on various medical appointments before she was diagnosed with Lyme.
“I would pay hundreds for a medical appointment to be told I was neurotic. Even the psychologists thought I was making it up.” Not to be deterred, Pooley committed to much research online and eventually spent $2750 on having a test in the US for Lyme disease.
John Coleman is a naturopath has treated around 300 patients with infections using a combination of lifestyle change, supplements and specialised herbal formulas. He works cooperatively with Lyme literate/aware doctors whenever possible to achieve the best outcome.
“There is a great deal of ineffectual argument in Australia at the moment focusing on whether Lyme disease exists in Australia. There are hundreds of Australians infected overseas (USA and Europe mainly, but many other countries) who can’t get appropriate treatment, even though they do not claim to have been infected in Australia.
“Much of the problem lies in calling it ‘Lyme disease’,” Coleman explains.
“The Chief Medical Officer of Australia has acknowledged that there is a ‘Lyme-like’ infection rife here and borrelia species have been found in a number of Australian animals.” Coleman concludes borreliosis and common co-infections seem to be at epidemic proportions right now.
The Lyme Disease Association of Australia (LDAA) currently estimates up to 300,000 people in Australia are infected. Some were almost certainly infected overseas, but there is a large population of infected patients who have never left Australia, which provides a strong indication of a more local problem.
Safeguards and references
The best way to protect against Lyme disease is to prevent tick bites, be aware of symptoms and to know how to safely remove ticks. Cover as much of your body when working or playing in the outdoors and strongly consider using insect repellents, DEET for skin and permethrin for clothes. Check yourself regularly.
Never use petrol or chemicals to remove a tick, or rub Vaseline on the tick to suffocate it. They breathe through their bottom and therefore there is a risk the tick will vomit their stomach contents into the bloodstream. If you develop a large bullseye rash, keep the tick in a sealed bag and seek a ‘Lyme-aware’ practitioner for treatment.
The Lyme Disease Association of Australia provided the technical information within this article.
For further information:
Tennille Pooley’s personal information was used with permission.
Ro Privett is an outdoor educator and sufferer of Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease in Australia. Dr N. Macfadzean
This article first appeared in Wild issue 154. Subscribe today.