Doctors now reporting on three more tick-borne diseases

Blacklegged deer tick with its legs curled around a strand of grass Photo by KPixMining/Shutterstock

Amid hot temperatures favourable to tick repopulation, the Ontario government now requires doctors to track cases of three more tick-borne diseases.

In addition to Lyme disease, you can also get Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, and Powassan virus after being bit by a blacklegged (deer) tick, according to the government of Ontario. The Ministry of Health recently amended Regulation 569 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to require doctors to report these diseases to their local medical officers.

Katie Clow, an assistant professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, says one of the college’s recent studies found Anaplasmosis was present in around five to 10 per cent of blacklegged ticks collected from 2019 to 2020, up from less than one per cent a few years prior. Lyme disease was found in over 30 per cent of the same ticks. It’s unclear how many people are impacted by Anaplasmosis because of a lack of hospital reporting.

“Anaplasmosis and the other two they’ve added as reportable diseases are still much lower of a risk, but because we’re starting to see changes in them, adding them as reportable diseases is allowing us to more effectively and systematically monitor what’s happening in the human population,” Clow says.

One of the factors driving this increase is climate change: the warm, humid climates ticks thrive in are becoming more common with warming temperatures, according to Clow.

“They can go through their life cycle, and they won’t starve out, so they can reproduce more and maintain their populations,” she says.

According to Janet Sperling, president of the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, the three diseases are researched far less than Lyme, but they can sometimes be just as prevalent. This makes it both harder to detect and respond to them appropriately.

“They have so much less research—I’m afraid to say one tenth or one hundredth,” Sperling says. “Orders of magnitude less.”

She says the diseases all have key differences that require new detection methods. While Lyme is transferred through bacteria and mainly causes rashes, Babesiosis is a “piroplasm,” meaning it’s transmitted through single-celled organisms. Its symptoms are closer to malaria, which include chills, fever, body aches, and nausea, and doctors can treat it with antibiotics. But because there are several strains of Babesiosis across Canada, different prescriptions might be necessary for different regions.

Anaplasmosis transfers through bacteria like Lyme but doesn’t cause a rash. It instead causes diarrhea, vomiting, and myalgia on top of fatigue and fever, and it’s also treated using antibiotics. 

Powassan virus, however, presents much more of an issue, according to Sperling: it can’t be treated with antibiotics. Though many people with the virus are asymptomatic, it can cause various symptoms, from flu-like fever and nausea to confusion, lack of balance, seizures, and paralysis.

“It’s not straightforward how to treat (Powassan virus). Most people are going to get supportive treatment, and we know, for the most part, our hospitals are really good at that,” says Sperling. “But (following the pandemic) the hospitals are being held together with scotch tape. Of all the summers you don’t want to get Powassan virus, this is the one.”

Sperling says the virus can even remain undetected after a negative Lyme disease test result. Since most tick-borne diseases are most easily treated in the initial infection stage, this makes Powassan virus more dangerous.

To prevent tick bites, Sperling recommends wearing longer clothing, including pants, higher socks, and closed-toed shoes, in areas with more foliage. Habitually checking your scalp, behind your knees, between your toes, and on your back will help you find most ticks. Thoroughly checking dogs and other outdoor pets is necessary to keep them tick-free.

“If you have a little short-haired dog it’s quite easy to do a tick check, but if you have a big furry dog that gets to be quite challenging. Often, your vet will prescribe an anti-tick medication, which will kill the ticks,” she says.

Modifying your property can also prevent ticks from getting inside. You can remove humid habitats by installing a line of mulch or gravel against the side of the house, mowing tall grass, and moving play structures out of shaded forests.

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