The New Zealand Ministry of Health states that Lyme disease is not present in the country and that any cases must have been acquired overseas.
So, what exactly is Lyme disease and why do experts say it’s not present in the Australasia region?
Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It can be transmitted to humans via a bite from an infected tick. Early symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a distinctive “bullseye” rash. Left untreated, Lyme disease can affect the whole body including eyes, joints, heart and brain.
The UK National Health Service reports 2000 to 3000 new cases of Lyme disease in England and Wales each year. In the US, the centre for disease control and prevention estimate that 300,000 people have been infected with the disease. But Kiwi officials maintain there is no Lyme disease here. This is because the ticks that transmit Borrelia burgdorferi are not found in the region. Of course, there is a chance that there may be other types of bacteria being transmitted via ticks. At present, however, the official recommendation is to consider non-infectious causes.
In a statement, the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia has said, “When a patient presents with symptoms resembling Lyme disease and no history of overseas exposure, although it is not entirely possible to rule in or rule out locally acquired Borreliosis on the basis of a series of negative results, it is important that patients are not diagnosed erroneously as having Lyme disease, when they may well have some other, potentially treatable conditions. Examples include chronic pain syndromes including … complex neurodegenerative disorders, such as motor neurone disease; or psychiatric illness, such as major depression with somatisation.”
Because of the controversy surrounding diagnosis, it’s not known how many people in the Australasia region are suffering from Lyme, or a Lyme-like, disease. However, in Australia, where experts also say Lyme disease does not exist, a current senate inquiry into tick-borne disease received more than 1200 submissions from people whose lives have been devastated by Lyme-like illness. One of the common frustrations of Lyme sufferers is that, without a diagnosis, treatment is difficult to prescribe. Even the most sympathetic doctors are powerless to help. And because health authorities deny the existence of the tick-borne disease, some GPs have faced disciplinary action for treating patients for Lyme disease.
As a consequence, people suffering from a Lyme-like disease are not eligible for publicly funded health care. Without government subsidies or rebates, the cost of treatment is astronomical. This is something that Nikkijo Tyrrell, 36, from Nelson, is all too familiar with. Tyrrell, who has been chronically sick with Lyme disease for the last 18 years, says that the financial burden has been “inordinately huge”. “In the past two-and-a-half years, my medical costs have been in the vicinity of $80,000,” she says. “Some of that was raised through fundraising, the rest has been down to my parents and extended family pooling together to help. I sometimes find it hard to mentally justify the amount of money being spent on me to get me well, but then I realise that for other illnesses, such as cancer, treatments are $300,000 per year or more, or for one-off surgeries. The difference is, the taxpayer and health system funds that.”
Costs more than money
There are other expenses too: loss of earnings and, as Tyrrell puts it, “lost opportunities”. In addition to the financial strain, many Lyme sufferers also experience psychological problems and social isolation. The mental health cost to those suffering Lyme-like illness shouldn’t be underestimated. “There are times where I am too weak to speak. It is like being locked in your own body,” she says.
On some occasions, Tyrrell would have the energy to call a friend, only to find she didn’t have the strength to hold a conversation. “I did have some friends who became used to this and would tell me stories or, in one case, sing to me,” she recalls. “I remember one day, a particularly low point, that was both a low and a high – I rang, unable to move or speak. My friend sang to me as I lay there all-but-paralysed, tears streaming down my face.”
What to do if you are bitten by a tick
Although the presence of Lyme disease in New Zealand is still being debated, ticks do pose a recognised health threat. Humans can experience tick paralysis or allergic reactions including anaphylactic shock from a tick bite. In addition, Queensland tick typhus and Flinders Island spotted fever are other tick-borne illnesses recognised by health authorities.
Here are five tips to help with the tricky task of tick removal:
- Don’t try to pull the tick out with your fingers.
- Kill the tick in place by applying a “freeze spray” typically used for wart treatment.
- The dead tick will fall out naturally (or you can use fine-tipped forceps if available).
- Clean and disinfect the tick bite area.
- If you develop flu-like symptoms or the tick bite area gets infected, consult a health professional.
Canadian singer Avril Lavigne suffers from Lyme disease. Read what she said about her diagnosis here.