Thanks to global warming, the ticks that carry Lyme disease are moving out of their traditional US comfort zone in search of pastures new throughout Europe and Asia. Some experts believe public health officials only have a two-year window in which to prepare. Even if there was a vaccine for Lyme disease, two years is nowhere near long enough to make proper preparations. So how serious is the threat, and what are the experts recommending people do to avoid catching the disease?
About the new Lyme disease threat
Around 300,000 Americans catch Lyme disease every year, making it a major public health problem over there. It’s easy to deal with when treated early, but if not it can result in a variety of lifelong health issues. Until now that hasn’t been a problem, since the disease has been mostly restricted to places where people know about it, recognise the symptoms and understand what to do. But now it’s moving steadily into Europe and Asia, places where it’s less well known, and medical experts aren’t always prepared for it.
Warmer winters are encouraging the ticks that bear the disease to migrate beyond their normal territory, into Europe and forested areas of Asia. Europe has seen the number of cases rising over the past 30 years, with the World Health Organisation pinpointing around 65,000 victims a year, and we see 2000-3000 cases a year in Britain these days.
The story started with mice. Now and again there’s a bumper acorn crop, and mice love them. 2016 was a big year for acorns, and for mice. The more mice there are, the more ticks there are. One mouse can house hundreds of young ticks, and mouse blood is full of Lyme-causing bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. The ticks then pass the disease to humans.
People living in traditional Lyme disease zones know exactly how to stay safe from tick bites. But if you’re unaware, it can be tricky to notice such a tiny bite. Ticks are very small indeed, roughly the size of a poppy seed, and the ‘bullseye’ rash the disease is famous for doesn’t always occur. The symptoms that follow can easily be mistaken for flu or a bad cold, and early tests can miss the disease because it can take weeks to develop fully. If it ends up as late-stage and hasn’t been treated, you can become very poorly indeed.
It’d be great if we could vaccinate people against Lyme, but there’s no vaccine. We used to have one, but anti-vaccination activists have driven it out of use. It was called Lymerix and was developed by SmithKline Beecham, now GSK, withdrawn from the market after just four years after a series of now-discredited lawsuits with no scientific or medical basis.
2014 saw announcements of a new vaccine, but it never came to fruition. Now there’s a potential new vaccine on the block called Valneva, in the early human trial stage, but its maker says it’ll be difficult to convince anti-vaccination lobbyists it’s safe. In any case, the new drug is at least six years away from being released on the market.
Weirdly, there’s a Lyme disease vaccination for pets, used widely to save our furry friends. It seems strange that you can vaccinate your pets but not yourself or your children! But until a new vaccine comes on board, the best way to stay safe is to know your enemy.
Countries where Lyme disease is a risk
• Czech Republic
• United Kingdom
• United States of America
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease
• A red blotch at the site of the bite, which may or may not turn into a mark that looks a lot like a bullseye target
• Over the next few weeks, flu-like aching and fever
• Left untreated you can suffer chronic joint inflammation, facial palsy, short-term memory problems, irregular heart rhythm, an inflamed brain and inflammation of the spinal cord
How to do a comprehensive check for ticks
• If you’re out and about in forests or fields in any of the at-risk countries, it’s sensible to wear long trousers, socks and shoes rather than shorts, sandals and short sleeves
• To check for ticks, strip off and examine yourself very carefully. It’s wise to get someone else to check the bits you can’t see
How to remove a tick
If you know for sure a tick has been on your body for less than 36 hours you can safely remove it with tweezers. Luckily it takes 36 – 48 hours for the disease to get into your bloodstream, and there’s a good chance you’ll be OK. If you’re not sure, see a doctor asap. But wait 4-6 weeks before taking a blood test, to avoid false negatives. If you test positive, a course of antibiotics will usually clear the infection quite quickly.
To remove ticks, use fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to your skin’s surface as you can, then pull the animal upwards using steady, even pressure. After it’s out, clean the area carefully with soap and hot water.
A few people still have symptoms after treatment, things like tiredness, painful joints and sore muscles. It’s called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome or chronic Lyme disease, and nobody knows for sure what causes the symptoms.