By Connor Lynch
OTTAWA — Parts of Eastern Ontario have seen sharp increases in Lyme disease rates as the climate warms and the tick population increases.
As of Nov. 15, there were 168 new cases of Lyme disease in Ottawa, up from 74 last year. Most of those cases, about 55 per cent of them, occurred in rural Ottawa, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, Dr. Monir Taha, told Farmers Forum. Since Ottawa amalgamated with area municipalities more than 10 years ago, most of what is now officially Ottawa is rural. The city runs north from the Rideau River, just north of Kemptville, to the Ottawa River. The city boundary starts from Arnprior in the west to east of Navan in the east.
According to stats from Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health, Lyme disease cases in the three regions have nearly tripled from last year to this year.
Lyme disease is caused by the blacklegged tick, a very small spider-like bug and its population is increasing. But worse is that the proportion of ticks found carrying the disease has increased as well, Taha said. Some areas in Connecticut and Maine, which have had Lyme disease for quite some time, see rates as high as 50 per cent of ticks carrying the illness, Taha said.
And Eastern Ontario is likely going to see more cases and higher proportions of disease-carrying ticks, he said. Ontario is already a Canadian hotspot for Lyme. Of the 917 new cases of Lyme disease across Canada in 2015, 323 cases were in Ontario.
Other areas of Eastern Ontario are faring better than Ottawa or Kingston. The Eastern Ontario Health Unit, which stretches from Cardinal in the west, north up to Rockland, and east to the border of Quebec, has only had 22 new cases of Lyme disease so far in 2017. Since 2007, the health unit has only tracked a total of 80 cases.
The Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit has had similarly low cases of Lyme disease. Stats are not available yet for 2017, but last year the region only had 23 new cases of Lyme disease. From 2011 to 2016, they’ve only had 82 cases.
Nevertheless, all four health regions are considered to be in Lyme disease hotspots.
Symptoms of the disease can vary. Most commonly, people get flu-like symptoms within days of being bitten by a tick, or a bull’s-eye rash (a large red rash surrounded by a ring rash). The disease is curable, and long-term damage can be prevented if the disease is caught early. A first dose of antibiotics is best administered within 72 hours of removing the tick to prevent the disease. Long-term damage can be severe and include long-term exhaustion and paralysis.
Here are a few tips from Lyme Ontario if you find a tick on yourself.
• While health officials suggest going to a doctor to have a tick removed to prevent it from infecting the blood system, a doctor’s office can be a long way to go. Use fine-pointed tweezers to grab the head as blunt tweezers can crush the body but leave the head under the skin. By simply pulling on the body, the tick will vomit the contents of its stomach and infect the carrier.
• You can buy a $16 (shipping included) tick kit (includes three styles of tick removers depending on whether the tick is on an arm or in the ear or on a pet) by ordering online from the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation. Expect delivery in about three weeks.
• Once the tick has been removed, apply an antiseptic to your skin and wash your hands. You can also buy an antibiotic at a pharmacy that can be applied to the affected area. If the disease is caught quickly and a full, three-week course of antibiotics is applied, your “chances are excellent of not having to ever worry about it,” said the Lyme disease foundation president Jim Wilson. Have the tick tested for Lyme disease by calling your local health unit or contact the Lyme Disease Foundation, Wilson said.
Peak season for ticks: Late-April to July
Ticks will hibernate under bark, leaves and cracks in the earth.
Ticks become physically active at temperatures of -4 C and above.
If a tick gets warmed up under a jacket or gets into your house, it will become active within minutes.
At this time of year, those most at risk include: Farmers, loggers, hunters and treefellers.
Ticks can easily survive a Canadian winter.
As soon as a tick population establishes itself, the risk of encountering a tick is high.
Ticks migrate on birds, most often small song birds such as robins and finches.