The risk of contracting Lyme disease is on the rise across Canada and residents living in Victoria aren’t an exception.
According to the federal government, southern Vancouver Island is a known and suspect endemic area for Lyme disease, along with the southern Mainland and the coast of B.C. that faces the island.
In 2015, there were more than 700 cases of Lyme disease reported across Canada compared to 522 in 2014. Five years prior, that number hovered around 100 cases. Officials suspect the most recent numbers are higher as cases are captured only if acquired in known endemic areas.
Dr. Dee Hoyano, a medical health officer with Island Health, is well aware of the potential for Lyme disease in the capital region, but said the risk is still quite low. In 2014, there was only one reported case, putting the rate of infection at 0.3 per 100,000 population.
Nonetheless, Hoyano said there has been some education for local physicians about the symptoms of Lyme disease and how to treat it, but she believes more awareness is needed when it comes to prevention.
“People need to be aware that ticks can potentially carry disease,” said Hoyano. “It’s not a high risk here, but certainly it is a possibility…People need to get in the habit of taking some precautions to try and avoid tick exposure.”
Lyme disease is caused by a type of bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi that’s spread to humans through bites from infected blacklegged ticks (found in B.C. and eastern Canada), which often live in forests and overgrown areas between woods and open spaces.
Symptoms of the disease are different for each person, but typically include skin rash, headache, fever or chills, fatigue, spasms or weakness, numbness or tingling and swollen lymph nodes. Others have reported dizziness, abnormal heartbeat, muscle and joint pain, paralysis, brain fog or other nervous system disorders.
Some people don’t experience symptoms for weeks after they’ve been bitten by an infected tick. If left untreated, however, the symptoms can last from months to years and in rare cases, lead to death.
Hoyano admits the disease can be difficult to diagnose. Brittany Lucas knows that all too well.
The 20-year-old Saanich resident went from having a carefree, busy lifestyle involved in competitive softball to not being able to get out of bed.
It all began around the age of 14 when she was playing in the Western Canadian championships, where her team won gold. Lucas was exhausted after the tournament, experiencing extreme muscle and joint pain that felt like having the flu. In a span of six weeks, she went from being the tournament MVP to a wheelchair, and was in constant pain, gaining 50 pounds.
Despite copious appointments, countless blood tests and several visits to the emergency room, doctors weren’t able to determine what was wrong as standard Canadian Lyme blood tests results came back negative.
“It was really scary,” she said, adding she’s not sure where she picked up the disease. “They just said it was in my head and I was making it up. That was hard because I obviously was not.”
Desperate for answers, the family flew to California to see a doctor in November 2010. After a year of bi-monthly trips to Los Angeles and a brand new Lyme culture blood test, Lucas was officially diagnosed with the disease.
Even with the diagnosis, however, Lucas claims Canadian doctors refused to acknowledge the results, forcing the family to return to California several times for treatment.
Thanks to a variety of antibiotics, Lucas now feels a lot better, but she’s still plagued by a lack of energy and brain fog, which affects her memory and studies at school.
By sharing her story, Lucas hopes more people will become aware of the disease and be more careful when enjoying the great outdoors.
“I still meet people who don’t even know what it is. They are not aware that if they are playing in their backyard they can be bit by a tick and that’s going to change their whole life,” she said, adding she knows a handful of others who have the disease, including her mother.
“It’s a lot more prevalent than we know of.”