Climate change leading to an increased risk of Lyme disease in Ireland, study finds

Ticks cause an acute inflammatory disease characterised by skin changes, joint inflammation and flu-like symptoms called Lyme disease
Climate change leading to an increased risk of Lyme disease in Ireland, study finds

Sarah Slater

Climate change is leading to an increased risk of Lyme disease in Ireland, a study has found.

Climate change has extended peak seasons for ticks here, which is pushing the country into closer contact with them and likely leading to increased incidences of diseases including Lyme disease.

In this month’s Irish Medical Journal, study co-author John Lambert, Consultant in Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the Mater Hospital, said that “ticks carry many different organisms, not just Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria of Lyme disease”.

Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) is an infection caused by Borrelia bacteria and is spread through the bite of an infected tick to a person. Lyme disease can affect anyone but is most common amongst those who spend time in grassy or heavily wooded areas or are in contact with certain animals such as deer and sheep.

Some of the symptoms include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes may occur in the absence of a rash.

Lyme disease is not easy to diagnose and not easy to treat. It has been reported in one study that only 14 per cent of patients recalled a tick bite, only 50 per cent got the classic bullseye rash, and only about 50 per cent had a positive standard Lyme antibody test.

In some patients the infection does not clear, and it triggers a cascade of inflammation that may cause ongoing and long-term complications.

A new epidemic

The study 'Tick Borne Infections in the EU: A New Epidemic in the Face of Global Warming' highlights that the migratory patterns of birds enable ticks to transfer with ease from one region to another, and that “global warming has precipitated the spread of ticks which host an increasing number of pathogens”.

Dr Lambert said that the diagnosis of Lyme disease is imperfect, and that “patients may experience a classic ECM rash, migratory arthritis or Bell’s palsy, but many may have atypical neurological, rheumatological or cardiological symptoms... they may not entertain Lyme as a possible diagnosis.

“There is no current mechanism to test for co-infections; the only infection addressed in the UK and Ireland is Lyme disease. As ticks carry many pathogens, it is likely that other tick-borne infections are contributing to patients’ symptoms.”

He added that “while treatment is important, prevention and early recognition is the best way to thwart the consequences of chronic Lyme/co-infections."

"Educating the public on the importance of tick prevention, covering exposed body parts, using insect repellent, and checking for ticks upon return from the outdoors, are key messages that should be reinforced," he added.

Dr Lambert pointed out that “until we have better education for GPs and consultants alike in Ireland on the complexities of tick borne infections, until we have better diagnostics and until we have investment in research funding to improve our understanding of these conditions, patients will continue to be left undiagnosed and untreated.”

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