Lyme disease: Interview with a biologist

A medical tablet with the words Lyme disease on it By Zerbor/Shutterstock

Dr. Shelley Ball is a biologist and the founder and president of Biosphere Environmental Education, a social enterprise focused on connecting people with nature. Ball has also lived with Lyme disease since 2019. Her new book, Lyme Disease, Ticks and You, tells her story, raising awareness about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases and tick safety. May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, so we sat down with Ball and chatted all things ticks and Lyme—and you, cottagers.

What prompted you to write this book?

“For any of us experiencing chronic Lyme disease or any other tick-borne diseases, those of us really suffering: there really is no help for us,” says Ball. Navigating her new illness in Canada’s healthcare system was no easy feat, Ball found, because the system still does not formally recognize chronic Lyme disease. After six weeks of antibiotics, “you’re on your own,” she says. “It’s been a struggle for me, and I have a science background. What about all those people out there who don’t understand peer-reviewed literature and who don’t have the faintest clue about Lyme disease?”

What’s something that shocked you when you were doing your research?

“With Lyme disease, there are always big shocks and surprises,” says Ball. But in particular, how little help there is out there for chronic Lyme sufferers. “How our medical system is set up to diagnose and treat Lyme almost guarantees that people will end up with chronic Lyme.”

What’s the difference between chronic and acute Lyme disease?

“Acute Lyme disease is described as the first few weeks after the bite; that’s the critical time for treatment.” After a tick bite, the transmitted bacteria sit under the skin in a localized patch, Ball explains. If it’s not promptly treated with antibiotics, it spreads into your blood system, finding its way through the rest of your body. This is called early dissemination. “Chronic Lyme is months to years of having those Lyme bacteria present. By that time, they’re doing a lot of damage.” Health Canada recommends a two-tiered blood test system to diagnose Lyme, but Ball finds that Canadian doctors often stick to just one test that often presents false negatives.

What are some new advances in Lyme disease research and prevention?

A vaccine came out in the nineties, Ball says, but it was discontinued soon after, due to sweeping failure and ineffectiveness. Vaccine research has since picked up and there’s one in human trials. Dogs have an annual vaccine that protects against Lyme, so maybe one day we will too. “I hope that we get there. I really think that’s our ticket to reducing the risk of Lyme disease.”

What is something about Lyme disease that people always get wrong?

The idea that a bull’s eye rash is always a symptom of Lyme is “total nonsense,” says Ball. Sometimes there’s no rash at all. There is so much to know about Lyme disease, and its symptoms and treatments, so it’s important you educate yourself.

In cottage country, how can a person protect themselves from Lyme?

“The best cure is prevention,” says Ball. Sprays, repellents, tick checks, and putting clothes in the dryer are all great practices. But there’s more that you can do. Ball, who lives on 15 acres of mostly forested land, has begun to landscape differently. One key tip? Moving the bird feeder away from where she and her pets usually walk, to help ensure that they don’t pick up any ticks when they are outside. After all, “ticks hitchhike on migratory birds.” Ball also recommends planting larger flower gardens in place of grass, cleaning up fallen leaves, and putting down pine mulch to create dry spaces that ticks tend to avoid. No need to hide inside. “Get out and enjoy the outdoors,” she says.

Any recommendations when it comes to tick repellents?

“My personal preferences are the icaridin-based repellents,” says Ball. Permethrin is powerful, but a neurotoxin, and essential oils, although natural, need to be reapplied often.

One more question: how are you?

“I’m hanging in there. Chronic Lyme is a very long marathon. It is not a sprint.”

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