Farmers talk of agony from undiagnosed Lyme disease

‘Ear to the Ground’ presenter Ella McSweeney, left, with Charlie Harkin, who had Lyme disease, and his wife, Serena.

Farmers have opened up about the agony of suffering silently with Lyme disease, which is notoriously difficult to diagnose.

There are around 200 new cases of Lyme Disease every year, but the true incidence is not known, as it can often be overlooked, due to varied symptoms.

Pop star Avril Lavigne, actor Richard Gere, and former US president George W Bush are all said to have experienced the horrors of the Borrelia bacteria, which is carried by infected ticks. 

It can cause a range of debilitating symptoms, from fatigue and joint pain to neurological problems.

It is transmitted by tiny ticks that live outside on animals. Farmers are particularly vulnerable to the condition.

Jack Lambert, a consultant specialist in infectious disease at Dublin’s Mater Hospital, believes the disease is more common in Ireland than previously thought.

“We actually have to open up our mind up to this new disease, which is much more common than we were previously aware of,” said Dr Lambert.

“We need to resource, to educate the GPs on the frontline, who are seeing these patients, to even think about Lyme.

“We need to educate the specialists, who are seeing these patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and rheumatological conditions and neurological conditions, to even consider Lyme, because it’s not on their radar screen at present.

“Not every case of rheumatoid arthritis is going to be Lyme disease, but you should at least think about it and do the test and take a history.”

In Thursday’s episode of RTÉ’s farming series Ear to the Ground, a farmer speaks of the devastation of suffering the symptoms, such as chronic fatigue and joint pain, and the failure to have his condition diagnosed.

Charlie Harkin, a part-time farmer from Inishowen, began to feel unwell on Christmas day four years ago. 

He suffered with Lyme disease for two years before being diagnosed following a blood test.

“I was jumping for relief that someone was telling me what I had,” he said. 

I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. It is savage. It was one of the scariest things I ever went through in my life and I never want to do it again.

Dr Lambert said the disease is very treatable.

“My belief, and my observation from treating patients, is that even if it has been in your system for five or ten years, if you do all the necessary treatment — antibiotics, immune supplements, anti-inflammatories, things to fix the immune system — it is curable,” he said.

“If you catch it early, within six months, I think, sometimes, even a three- to six-week course of antibiotics does it, or even two to three months of antibiotics does it.”

Farmers are urged to avoid tick-borne infections by wearing repellent and by checking for ticks at the end of the day, looking out for a bulls-eye rash, flu-like symptoms, and nerve pain.

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