By Emma Herrle
With the rising rates of tick infection and Lyme disease in Canada, people are becoming more aware of the risk the outdoor activities and the necessary precautions — right?
One would hope. Unfortunately, as rates of Lyme infection have increased, education on tick safety hasn’t kept up.
Throughout the past decade, Canada has seen a dramatic rise in the tick population and with that, an increase in Lyme disease cases and other tick-borne illnesses.
How Lyme Disease Spreads and Early Warning Signs
Ticks are really just the carriers of Lyme disease from one mammal to another. Many woodland mammals like deer and mice carry the Lyme bacteria, and when ticks feed on those mammals, they pass the infection.
Other mammals are adapted to the Lyme bacteria, but humans aren’t. The Lyme bacteria can make us very sick and the infection is difficult to eradicate.
That’s why it’s so important to be aware of ticks and understand what to look for.
Ticks latch on to their prey and feed on blood. As the tick feeds, the bacteria move from its belly to its salivary glands and pass into the bloodstream of its new host. This means that the longer a tick is undetected, the longer it has to potentially transmit Lyme.
The bullseye rash, or erythema migrans (EM) rash, is the most famous early symptom of Lyme infection. But this easy-to-spot sign is experienced by less than half of Lyme disease patients — meaning many Canadians can’t pinpoint the origin of their infection.
What’s more, because the spread of ticks across Canada is relatively new, many Canadians aren’t aware of the risks — and don’t take precautions against infection.
Where in Canada Could I Get Lyme Disease?
The real answer is sadly, everywhere. Until recently, most Canadians believed that the risk of being bitten and infected by a tick was relatively low – provided we stayed away from the known tick risk areas, usually remote forested regions.
However, thanks to the changing climate, areas of Canada that were previously uninhabitable for ticks have become breeding grounds. No longer limited to secluded forest areas, Lyme disease-carrying ticks are now found in and around some of Canada’s largest cities.
Ontario, in particular, has seen a marked rise in reported cases, with 987 of the 2017 total of more than 1,400 coming from the province, and 78 from Toronto itself.
Public Health Ontario advises that people are mindful of ticks in all forested areas — even if that means your own backyard.
It is possible, though unlikely, that blacklegged or deer ticks (also known as wood ticks) can be found anywhere that their habitat is supported. Grassy and wooded environments are best for ticks, where they can stay until a host, be it animal or human, passes by to provide their next meal.
How Can I Avoid Lyme Disease?
Diagnosing and treating Lyme disease is challenging for Canadians. Our health care system is simply not prepared for the surge in Lyme infections, and there is an ongoing debate on the best means for treating Lyme disease.
As Canadians who have lived with Lyme disease can attest, the symptoms can be debilitating and the recovery process long. Many people living with Lyme disease can no longer work, drive or carry on with their normal day-to-day activities.
Preventing tick bites in the first place is the best method to avoid illness. This is particularly important if you, your children or staff spend time in potential tick risk areas. We now know that tick risk zones include parks, fields and even backyards, so everyone should know what it takes to prevent tick bites.
Tick protection requires more than just protective clothing. There are several practices that most Canadians are unaware of, which can apply in the wilderness or at home. Staying safe starts before you even head outdoors and there are things you can do immediately when you get inside to minimize the chance of contracting Lyme disease.
Everything you need to know about tick safety can be found in Danatec’s Wood Tick Safety course. This engaging, documentary-style training course is perfect for any Canadian who spends time outdoors recreationally or for work.
While the tick risk is growing in Canada, we can all stay safe if we learn the key precautions.
Emma Herrle is a writer, living and studying in Toronto. She has studied in Paris and brings insight to her work with a broad worldview and a unique understanding of her audiences.