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Lyme disease increasing as climate changes

According to information from the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC), for the first time ever, the risk of contracting Lyme disease is now considered significant in the territory.

KHC manager of nursing and clinical services Stéphanie Lacaille said that last year, 709 cases of Lyme disease were confirmed in the province.

“Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of infected black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks,” said Lacaille

“Not all ticks carry the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi). However, in case of a bite, it is important to closely monitor for symptoms. Symptoms can appear anywhere between three to 30 days after exposure to the bacteria.”

The nurse explained that oftentimes one of the first symptoms to appear is an expanding red rash that normally begins at the site of the tick bite. However, some other early symptoms include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain and swollen lymph nodes.

If someone is bitten by a tick and it’s been attached to the skin for more than 24 hours, or they have had a tick removed for less than 72 hours, and there are no symptoms, antibiotics will be prescribed as a preventative measure.

“But say there were symptoms like swollen lymph nodes or fever and chills – at that point, it would just confirm the presence of Lyme disease. Blood tests can also be done to confirm the disease,” she explained.

What should a Kanehsata’kehró:non do if they are bitten by a tick?

Lacaille said that the first thing to do is to remove the deer tick as soon and as safely as possible, seeing as the incubation period to develop an infection is 24 to 36 hours after the bite.

“It is very important to remove the tick entirely very carefully using tweezers to grasp the head as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull it out. Once removed, the person can then call the health centre, and we will evaluate the situation to determine if antibiotics will be required or not,” she said.

If KHC is closed, community members can contact the pharmacy in Oka, and they will initiate the protocol.

Identifying the type of tick is also crucial in diagnosing Lyme disease, so it is recommended to keep the tick after removal for testing by local public health.

Teiawenhniseráhte Jeremy Tomlinson, the executive director at KHC, said that they are currently preparing a communication package for the community to raise awareness of the increased risk of Lyme disease in the territory.

“We are also actively working with the doctors who practice at the health centre in terms of a collective ordinance so that our nurses would be able to prescribe the antibiotics. So, we are getting ready to offer a response,” said Tomlinson.

Lacaille believes that the increase in cases over the last two years could also be related to the rise in travel within the province because of COVD-19.

Nevertheless, the main culprit for the surge in cases remains climate change. Marina Gosselin, the environmental projects coordinator for climate change at the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office (KEPO), said that the life cycle of ticks is closely related to temperature and humidity.

“A warming climate means the range that ticks live and reproduce will grow as we experience shorter and warmer winters in Quebec and Eastern Canada, with fewer days of extreme cold,” said Gosselin.

“This change extends the period that ticks are active every year, which increases the timeframe that people can be exposed to ticks that carry Lyme disease.”

Additionally, according to the coordinator, there are also ecological, anthropogenic, and land management factors that are related to the illness.

“Changes in land use such as habitat fragmentation and deforestation can affect host species’ (deer) population and migration routes, which ticks depend on to survive and reproduce,” she said.

“While climate change and the resulting higher temperatures are causing the expansion of the tick’s geographic range to extreme altitudes and latitude, which means that ticks are now surviving in places they couldn’t before.”

In terms of treatment, Lacaille said that the disease is treated with antibiotics, but the effectiveness varies from person to person. And although the majority of the time the treatment is successful, some people may continue to experience symptoms afterwards.

“One thing is for sure: if left untreated, Lyme diseases can result in chronic joint inflammation (Lyme arthritis), particularly of the knee, neurological symptoms, such as facial palsy and neuropathy, cognitive defects, such as impaired memory and heart rhythm irregularities. Although I must say that it is rare,” said Lacaille.

As with any illness, prevention is key. So before going into a wooded area like a bush or field, Lacaille recommends that a person wear light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts and pants to spot ticks quickly.

Once outside, it is good practice to check extremities like the ankles, wrists, and around the neck area before going back inside. Checking your pets is also imperative in preventing Lyme disease in humans.

“Right now, we are mainly dealing with deer ticks that carry Lyme disease, but as the climate change progresses, there could be other possibly more dangerous ticks that are making their way up north,” said Tomlinson.


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