Are Australian ticks now infected with Lyme disease? The Citizen journalist Squirrel Main reports on a new government committee to review the evidence.
Can you catch Lyme disease in Australia? Although doctors have long said the disease is not indigenous to Australia, a newly formed government committee is sifting through the evidence.
The disease, which can be fatal, has been recognised in the United States since the 1970s, but this is the first time the Australian government has undertaken a formal examination of the evidence for indigenous Lyme disease.
Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) is a tick-borne bacterial infection. The infection, which can begin with a fever and bullseye-shaped rash, can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, it can sometimes spread to different parts of the body, causing a wide range of symptoms including neck stiffness, shooting pains from nerve damage, heartbeat irregularities and a loss of muscle tone in the face, known as Bell’s palsy. In extreme cases, it can cause death.
Many people are convinced that it can be contracted in Australia, but medical authorities have long said Australian ticks do not carry the disease.
“I was in an electric wheelchair for eight years,” said Nikki Coleman, of the Lyme Disease Association of Australia. Once she began treatment for Lyme disease, her condition improved. “I can start earning money, I can start paying tax, I can start contributing to society.”
There are no formal figures on the illness, but the Lyme Disease Association estimates there are more than 10,000 diagnosed cases in Australia. The organisation estimates that many more cases, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are undisagnosed.
But doctors, including Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ spokesman Ronald McCoy, say not everyone with Lyme-like symptoms has Lyme disease. “I’m not saying people are lying,” McCoy said. “The college is very much evidence-based medicine, and we can only really go on the evidence we have at this time.”
Others are certain the disease exists in Australia. “We’re talking about the fastest-spreading disease in the world,” says Queensland GP Andrew Ladhams, who has been treating Lyme patients for the past nine years.
To help resolve this conflict, the Department of Health and Aging has established a clinical advisory committee on Lyme disease to provide advice on identifying the micro-organism, diagnosing Australian cases and deciding on treatment options. The committee, which has met twice, has commissioned a research study to begin next year.
In a recent letter to doctors, Chief Medical Officer Chris Baggoley told clinicians in his letter that working towards “the identification and characterisation of an indigenous causative organism” would help improve the means for diagnosing Lyme disease in Australians:
“While the investigation into an indigenous causative organism for Lyme disease continues, there is a need to raise awareness of Lyme disease as a possible diagnosis in returned travellers who may have acquired the infection whilst visiting overseas endemic areas.”
The advisory committee includes experts from public health and professional medical bodies, as well as representatives of the Australian Society for Infectious Diseases, the Lyme Disease Association of Australia and the Karl McManus Foundation, which works to raise awareness of tick-borne disease in Australia.