Climate change increasing risk of Lyme disease in Ireland

Climate change increasing risk of Lyme disease in Ireland

The peak season for ticks, which cause the disease, has been extended due to the changing climate. This is pushing more people into closer contact with the parasites.

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

The peak season for ticks, which cause the disease, has been extended due to the changing climate. This is pushing more people into closer contact with the parasites and likely leading to increased incidents of illness in people, including Lyme disease.

A new study in the Irish Medical Journal notes that climate change has resulted in altered migratory patterns for birds which carry ticks.

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”.

Co-author John Lambert, a consultant in medicine and infectious diseases at the Mater Hospital, said: "Ticks carry many different organisms, not just Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria of Lyme disease."

Symptoms and treatment

Lyme disease is spread through the bite of an infected tick to a person. 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% of patients recalled a tick bite, only 50% get the classic bullseye rash, and only about 50% have a positive standard Lyme antibody test. In some patients, the infection does not clear, and it triggers a cascade of infection, and inflammation that may cause ongoing and long-term complications.

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: “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.” 

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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