tip off

Ticked off: can you catch Lyme disease in Australia?

Are Australian ticks now infected with Lyme disease? The Citizen journalist Squirrel Main reports on a new government committee to review the evidence.

tick

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.

*This article was originally published at The Citizen

20
  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 6 November 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    My mother has Lyme disease, confirmed by a blood test she had to arrange and send to the US, without support from doctors. The only reason she got to this point was months and months of inconclusive tests - Lyme disease “couldn’t exist” in Australia (even though she could have contracted it on a trip to the UK), so despite all the alternative conditions being ruled out (MS, etc) she was just told she had a virus and there was nothing they could do.

    She’s now being treated, by a doctor who has to risk their reputation to provide care. But because her diagnosis took so long, there’s a chance the disease might be with her for years or the rest of her life, and she’s in frequent pain.

    Being dismissed by the medical community when something’s obviously wrong is extremely distressing, demoralising and dangerous. Please, please let something conclusive and helpful come out of this new committee.

  • 2
    Adeline Teoh
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    A friend was ‘lucky’ to get the bullseye rash (only about 30% of Lyme cases show that symptom) so she could fast-track the diagnosis. As with siadele’s mother, the only tests available are from the US. Getting treatment turned into a very frustrating battle with denialist doctors. The committee is welcome.

  • 3
    holmes
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Sorry commenters, but you are plain wrong. There is no “denialism” in the medical field- there is evidence-based research. The reason why you are sending samples to the US and getting positive results is because the testing labs are shonky and the drug companies have an interest in you buying their drugs. And that goes for the Australian doctor who gave you this information, who “risked their reputation”, to provide care to you/your loved ones at great expense to you and a steady, profitable stream of patients who want a diagnosis so they can feel vindicated.
    Siadele, if you mother went to UK she might well have contracted it there- but IT DOES NOT EXIST IN AUSTRALIA.
    Lastly, the author deliberately confuses the reader by intimating that the committee recognises Lyme Disease exists in Australia, which it does not. It has been formed to review the evidence for it existing in Australia (if it does)- and that is mainly to pander to uninformed hysteria, a very small number of doctors who are profiting from this and internet experts.

  • 4
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Holmes, you don’t need to be so aggressive about it please.

    I’m not saying there is or isn’t indigenous Lyme disease in Australia. That’s what the committee’s looking into.

    But either way, some people in Australia are presenting with symptoms that aren’t anything else, and they aren’t being treated for it (like my mother, who could have contracted Lyme in the UK - but there’s no support for her here).

    I don’t care what we call it, but we need to be constructive about this. Let’s stop just telling people who think they have Lyme that they’re merely hypochondriacs, let’s find out what’s actually making them sick, and let’s get systems in place to help them.

  • 5
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Lyme disease has been around for a long time it is identified and acknowledged in the UK and USA. Two of many large tourist pools on the planet. For some reason Australia is still claiming lyme diease could not possibly exist in Australia. I have watched TV programs some years ago where people claiming to be infected with this disease were pointing out they had not left Australia. I also recall reading about our government keeping pigs in pens on the Cape York Peninsula years ago. So they could test the pigs blood for the presence of mosquito/blood born diseases migrating from New Guinea like Ross River Fever which is now known way South into NSW. It is interesting we acknowledge people residing in Australia may have contracted the disease from tick bites overseas. But is the Australian government really asking us Crikey readers to accept those infected tourist over twenty or thirty years could not have passed the Lyme infection onto australian ticks and into our Australian population ? Edward James

  • 6
    Adeline Teoh
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Holmes, would you mind pointing me to more information about this rort? I am looking into all sides for a story I am writing on this (you can find me at writertype.com.au).

    All I will say is that my friend suffered the bullseye rash when living in the NSW north coast and then received confirmation that it was Lyme.

    It would be great if Australian doctors could provide the tests to reduce the risk of sending it to a ‘shonky lab’. Even if it is foreign, perhaps a travel doctor should be able to diagnose it. If it isn’t Lyme, it’s something else and there’s no harm in finding out what it is and ruling out Lyme altogether.

  • 7
    D D
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    @Holmes:

    The evidence-based research I suspect you refer to is a study undertaken by Russell and Doggett which with a bit of logic and common sense can be easily refuted. This is the main (evidence-based) research the medical fraternity here in Australia also heavily relies on.

    There are other studies conducted by Doctors/Researches here in Australia from late eighties through until 2012 that confirm the caustive agents existence locally in Australia:

    1982 – Lyme Disease in the Hunter Valley; Med Journal of Australia - Lyme Disease in the Hunter Valley Med Jnl of Australia 1982

    1986 – Lyme Disease on the SOuth COast of NSW; McCrossin Med Journal Aust - Lyme Disease on the South Coast of NSW McCrossin Med Jnl Aust 1986

    1991 – Detecting the Cause of Lyme Disease in Australia; Med Journal of Australia - Detecting the cuase of Lyme disease in Australia Med Jnl of Australia 1991

    1998 – Lyme Disease in Australia; Aust/NZ Journel of Public Health - Lyme Disease in Australia Aust NZ Jnl of Pub Health 1998

    1998 – Culture Positive Lyme Borreliosis; Hudson Medical Journal of Australia - Culture positive lyme borreliosis Hudson Med Jnl Aust 1998

    2012 - Investigation of Borrelia burgdorferi genotypes in Australia obtained from erythema migrans tissue & Emerging incidence of Lyme borreliosis, babesiosis, bartonellosis, and granulocytic ehrlichiosis in Australia. all available on PubMed.

    Further, the labs you reference are shonky may have had issues within the US (due to a powerful lobby group known as The American Infectious Disease Society)..however did you know the tests actually come back and are tested against the labs own criteria and the CDC’s criteria?

    So by your assertion those that return an Igenex and a CDC positive are what shonky?

    There is also a high incidence of negative results - some local GPs have also sent their blood and results have come back negative.

    Finally, if the Government didn’t feel the situation warranted further investigation they would not go to the expense of convening a CAC with a large number of representatives just to pander to some uniformed individuals.

  • 8
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    of convening a CAC with a large number of representatives just to pander to some uniformed individuals. DD what is CAC the acronym for? Edward James

  • 9
    D D
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    @Edward James - CAC = Clinical Advisory Committee and CACLD = Clinical Advisory Committee on Lyme Disease.

  • 10
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that DD. Some of us watching across the broad spectrum of WTF. Need to be permitted to understand the full names of referenced bodies! cheers Edward James. Gosford Foghorn, Central Coast NSW

  • 11
    D D
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    @Adeline Teoh

    Here is a link to some information regarding Igenex and some investigations with regulators in the US based which was raised as part of an ABC program here in Australia.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2013-05-12/4675072

    http://www.lymedisease.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/IgeneXAustraliaResponseApril2013.pdf

    Interestingly some GPs try to discredit labs overseas yet the labs here are under investigation from ACCC regarding their potential liability from not diagnosing Lyme disease. There are always arguments for and against.

    Have you spoken to the Lyme Disease Association of Australia? Lyme Awareness and Recognition Australia? Karl McManus Foundation? Perhaps Dr Peter Mayne, Dr Andrew Ladhams (both are members of Australian Chronic Infectious Disease Society) or Dr Bernie Hudson (Infectious Disease Specialist)? Even Dr Ann Mitrovic at Sydney Uni who is conducting a research project into Australian Ticks. If you want the alternative story speak with those who a speakers for the Australian Medical Association or any of the State based health departments.

  • 12
    D D
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    @Edward James. No problem. The use of acronyms in writing is a particularly bad habit. Apologies for the confusion.

  • 13
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Accurate information and facts are important. says Gosford City Council General Manager Paul Anderson

    Team McKinna, other Councilors, and many others including our NSW Liberal Party Premier Barry O’Farrell and his Minister for Local Government at Ballina MP Don Page. Are you guys willing to tell my readers if there is any good reason our political allsorts can offer my readers in the Gosford Local Government Area. Why after what my readers read as a perceived internationally misleading attack on me. About the conduct of the peoples local governance of elections and our public business in the Peninsula News on page 14 on the 16 of September 2013. The forum letter submitted by Gosford City Councils new General Manager Paul Anderson, Gosford . Under the heading; Accurate information and facts are important. Our NSW State government, both those in power under Barry O’Farrell and the oppositions MP John Robertson need to be concerned about the governance of the peoples political business at local government level. Local councils will not function to good effect, while those with oversight at the State and Federal levels of government remain so conflicted.
    Edward James
    POB 3024
    Umina 2257
    0243419140

  • 14
    Catherine Scott
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I used to holiday in a tick-filled part of the country. Was bitten by one and developed a very nasty disease with many of the symptoms of Lyme Disease. My doctor struggled to come up with a diagnosis, so I suggested that it might be something nasty with an arthropod vector. He started me on antibiotics even tho the blood test came back negative, which I understand it often does, even with Lyme present. The antibiotics worked, tho they were not the best for Lyme nor a long enough course for same.

    A few years later I was bitten again and again developed symptoms but went to a local doctor who disputed Lyme and said tick typhus, which he treated me for. I recovered.

    Evidence for a number of rickettsia illnesses in Australia spread by ticks and other things.

  • 15
    holmes
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    People- two clicks of my mouse provided a comprehensive overview of the research on the likelihood of Lyme Disease in Australia: http://medent.usyd.edu.au/fact/lyme%20disease.htm
    I suggest you all go read THE FACTS (as opposed to A Current Affair, Women’s Weekly and What’s My Conspiracy Monthly) about this.

    If you want to read more, I suggest you AVOID Google, as most of the search hits are of the LDAA, other conspiracy sites and tabloid ‘journalism’ that buys into the hysteria. Try http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au or another Commonwealth or State govt. health site, which contrary to conspiracists belief does not source its information from governments, but scientists and medical experts.

    DD, your assertion that “a bit of logic and common sense” can refute evidence-based research is so ridiculous I am still laughing. I believe the Nobel Committee is on the line as we speak- they are anxious to utilise your powerful and revolutionary “logic and common sense” test on the research of every previous Nobel recipient!

    Your list of research may look impressive and authoritative to some, but your readers need to know: not all journals are equal, so a piece appearing in something that is called a Journal does not automatically give it any particular status or authority; research is constantly evolving and building on previous research, so the older it is the more likely it has been refuted, added to or modified; good research/researchers is/are extremely cautious (witness the climate science discussion), so any articles that definitively “…confirm the caustive [sic] agents existence locally in Australia” (or is this just your hyperbole) are by definition suspect.

    Siadele, I am aggressive about this because people who spread urban myths, conspiracies and outright lies (including some doctors) do more harm to the unwell than anybody else.
    I am not denying that many people in Australia are very unwell, some with (some) symptoms that are similar to Lyme Disease. If they are not getting the help they deserve, they should go to another doctor. However, there are many illnesses that defy a definitive diagnosis- and it is tempting for sufferers, and some doctors, to say it is Lyme Disease. Unfortunately, some doctors are not very good, some are lazy, some are taken in by the same half-truths and myths as others and some are deliberately devious.

  • 16
    holmes
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    DD you are obviously a paid-up member of the Lyme Disease Association of Australia, which sounds REALLY important and official. It’s really lovely of you to direct Adeline to your pro-conspiracy contacts, but I hope she also gets the other side of the story- you know, the one where they look at the actual evidence, instead of those citing non-peer reviewed backyard studies, anecdote after anecdote and understandably unwell people who are desperate for a cure and vulnerable to quackery.

  • 17
    holmes
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    DD, your assertion that “a bit of logic and common sense” can refute evidence-based research is so ridiculous I am still laughing. I believe the Nobel Committee is on the line as we speak- they are anxious to utilise your powerful and revolutionary “logic and common sense” test on the research of every previous Nobel recipient!

    Your list of research may look impressive and authoritative to some, but your readers need to know: not all journals are equal, so a piece appearing in something that is called a Journal does not automatically give it any particular status or authority; research is constantly evolving and building on previous research, so the older it is the more likely it has been refuted, added to or modified; good research/researchers is/are extremely cautious (witness the climate science discussion), so any articles that definitively “…confirm the caustive [sic] agents existence locally in Australia” (or is this just your hyperbole) are by definition suspect.

    Siadele, I am aggressive about this because people who spread urban myths, conspiracies and outright lies (including some doctors) do more harm to the unwell than anybody else.
    I am not denying that many people in Australia are very unwell, some with (some) symptoms that are similar to Lyme Disease. If they are not getting the help they deserve, they should go to another doctor. However, there are many illnesses that defy a definitive diagnosis- and it is tempting for sufferers, and some doctors, to say it is Lyme Disease. Unfortunately, some doctors are not very good, some are lazy, some are taken in by the same half-truths and myths as others and some are deliberately devious.

  • 18
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Holmes, my mother did see another doctor, and another doctor, a neurologist, and another neurologist, and got nowhere. Your aggressiveness isn’t helping the debate, it’s just making people defensive and therefore less open to real discussion and debate.

    I’m not some conspiracy theorist, I’m a person concerned about their family member because that family member is suffering from something no-one can help her with. I am open to any option, and would of course prefer reams of peer-reviewed research to back it up - I don’t care if it’s Lyme or something else causing Mum’s symptoms, I just want to know what it is, how it’s caused, and what cures it. And all I know is that every time I try to look into the possibility of Lyme, I’m shouted down but not given any viable alternatives.

  • 19
    holmes
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    OK- How about you ignore the aggression (which is not aimed at you) and read the other stuff.
    I’m sorry that I can’t help you. I wish you the very best in getting to the bottom of your mother’s ilness, whatever it is.

  • 20
    D D
    Posted Thursday, 7 November 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    @Holmes. This debate could go on forever :)

    Firstly, I’m glad you are laughing its the best medicine for all that pent up aggression. Being in denial will do that to a guy. So my suspicions were correct you are a fan of Russell and Doggett which was published in the early nineties so its highly likely (as you correctly point out research that is old has quite possibly been refuted or built on) which if you look at the 2012 study by Dr Mayne it has been. Also, just quietly the same website you direct readers to (you know http://medent.usyd.edu.au/departme/departme.htm) is the same university conducting the current medical study into ticks in Australia…different department, same University though!

    Secondly, the Russell and Doggett study you refer to (well actually I’m not 100% sure which study it is I’m only guessing here because you actually don’t provide ANY references for your assertions) only utilised a small number of test subjects I think from memory only around 1000 out of 12000 which in reality is only a very small test to base such a conclusive result on which by using your logic a good researcher is generally very cautious about.

    Thirdly, you mention to readers to visit Victoria’s Better Health initiative or other government sites as a good source for information..how about this government site http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-lyme-disease.htm site? It provides information about the CACLD. Interestingly enough advice was sent to all GP’s advising them about the CACLD and Lyme disease in Australia.

    Just finally I’m not a paid member of the Lyme Disease Association of Australia and although you may not think so I too am only interested in getting those sick individuals the help they require.

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