Worried about Lyme? Don’t wait for lab results
Public health officials say testing ticks for bacteria is meant to assess regional risks
No ticks submitted to Hamilton public health have tested positive for the bacteria that leads to Lyme disease in humans during a banner year for the bloodsucking critters.
But Hamilton Public Health is still urging to residents to watch out for the tiny arachnids and not rely on lengthy laboratory testing to diagnose the disease.
“That information is not available in a timely fashion to let people know if they’ve been exposed to Lyme disease,” said Dr. Jessica Hopkins, the city’s associate medical officer of health.
If exposed to blacklegged ticks, which can carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, people should consult their doctor right away for diagnosis.
A Hamilton resident recently contacted The Spectator to complain about a three-week wait for test results after Hamilton General Hospital sent a blacklegged tick to a Public Health Ontario laboratory for analysis.
The man said the tick had been found on his 74-year-old father’s leg when he went to the hospital for a hernia operation. He’d been golfing in Turkey Point, a hot spot for infected ticks. Since then, he’s been experiencing dizzy spells.
A Hamilton Health Sciences spokesperson confirmed the tick was sent to Ontario Public Health, which is its standard practice. The hospital is following up with the patient, Lillian Badzioch said.
The testing of tick samples sent to Ontario Public Health is meant to assess the potential risk of disease infection in the province by flagging areas where blacklegged ticks are settling.
Blacklegged tick specimens are sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg to find out if they’re carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, explained Dr. Samir Patel, a clinical microbiologist with Public Health Ontario.
That testing can take as long as six months, he said.
“That is why treatment for Lyme disease is not dependent on testing of the tick. Treatment for Lyme disease is based on clinical diagnosis of symptoms by a health-care provider, whether the person was in a risk area for blacklegged ticks and Lyme disease, and how long the tick may have been attached to the person.”
People who find ticks on them can submit the insects to local health units or health-care providers to send to the provincial agency’s laboratory. Ontario Public Health also tests patient blood samples sent by family doctors.
So far this year, 694 ticks have been submitted to Hamilton’s public health unit for analysis. Of those, 26 were found to be blacklegged ticks that originated in the city.
None have tested positive for Borrelia burgdorferi, but some results are pending.
The province hasn’t flagged Hamilton as a Lyme disease “risk area.” Nearby locations such as Turkey Point, Long Point, Niagara Falls, Wainfleet Blog and Toronto are considered hot spots, however.
Hopkins noted climate change is pushing ticks father north and expanding their reach in Ontario.
“At some point in the future, we do expect Hamilton will see more blacklegged ticks and Lyme disease.”
Public health conducts “tick-dragging” in the spring and fall to survey the presence of blacklegged ticks in Hamilton during two stages of their life cycles. That involves dragging a pole with a long, white flag through grassy areas to collect specimens. The bugs are pulled off, identified and sent for analysis.
For more information on ticks, visit Hamilton Public Health at www.hamilton.ca/ticks
Blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, can carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. So far this year, 26 have been sent to public health.