Lyme Symptoms: Ticks in Alberta

Posted July 11, 2012 from Edmonton Journal.

EDMONTON – Despite its previously low profile in Alberta, a species of tick notorious for carrying Lyme disease may now be establishing its territory here, a University of Alberta researcher says.

In a study released Wednesday, graduate student Daniel Fitzgerald said he found that Ixodes scapularis, or the blacklegged tick, was the fifth most common species of tick found in the province. The blacklegged tick is particularly suited to carrying and transmitting a bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi, which can develop into Lyme disease.

The findings come as something of a revelation, since it was previously believed this species was not living in Alberta, but rather in Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. That might also surprise people who thought they could only get Lyme disease while travelling, Fitzgerald said.

“Generally the consensus, among vets, too, was you had to go elsewhere,” he said. “(But) the ticks are where we are. A lot of people think we have to go to the mountains or Elk Island. There are ticks there, don’t get me wrong, but there are also ticks in the cities.

“We had ticks from dogs who hadn’t left their backyards … They live where we live.”

Fitzgerald said the areas with the highest count of blacklegged tick included Edmonton and Calgary, as well as much of central Alberta.

The study was the first in 40 years to document the distribution of tick species across Alberta. Fitzgerald focused on finding out where different species live.

His research relied on data gathered between 2007 and 2010, when about 100 veterinary clinics across Alberta sent him samples of nearly 1,200 ticks plucked from about 800 animals.

Fitzgerald then narrowed the number of ticks for testing, sending about 108 to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. Of the 108 ticks, 22 of them tested positive for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

The bacteria that cause the disease is normally carried by infected animals like mice, birds, squirrels, and household pets. When ticks bite them, they become infected and can pass the infection to humans.

The first sign a person has contracted Lyme disease is usually a small rash around the bite, but extreme symptoms can include recurring arthritis, and neurological symptoms like headaches, dizziness, numbness, and paralysis. In the past 22 years, there have been about 27 documented cases of Lyme disease in Alberta, but all of those were contracted outside the province.

Over the years, countless dogs may have brought blacklegged ticks home with them as vacation souvenirs. But Fitzgerald said ticks need warmth and moisture to be able to reproduce and establish a population. He added he wasn’t sure why these ticks are suddenly showing themselves, but one possible explanation is climate change in the province, with rising temperatures allowing the ticks to flourish.

A study done at the University of Montreal in March indicated that in 2010 about 18 per cent of inhabited areas in Eastern Canada had ticks. But by 2020, that could rise as high as 80 per cent.

Still, Fitzgerald hesitated to say if there would be an explosion in Alberta’s tick population. He would only say his findings warrant more research, possibly into the life cycles of the blacklegged tick or their actual numbers.

“Whether it means ticks are increasing in density … I can’t say,” he said. “But if the ticks are established and reproducing … it’s worth taking a closer look.”

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