Rise of Lyme disease brings fear, resentment

Clad in a white coverall and dragging a length of white flannel, Manisha Kulkarni seems a sinister figure in suburban Ottawa as she drags for a growing threat that is invisible to the naked eye.

Blacklegged ticks may be as small as a poppy seed but they can carry the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. It can be treated with antibiotics but, if left untreated, Lyme can cause arthritis, neurological problems, numbness, paralysis and, on rare occasions, even death.

“With urbanization, residential neighbourhoods are spreading into what used to be wooded areas where ticks are found,” explained the medical entomologist at the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health. “This means that in many parts of the city, people can pick up ticks while walking through tall grasses, bush or wooded areas in their neighbourhoods or even in their own backyards.”

For the first time earlier this summer, Ottawa was officially deemed an area at risk of Lyme disease. That’s because more than one in five ticks captured last year tested positive for the bactera.

Kulkarni and her team are working with Ottawa Public Health to combine satellite data of the landscape, tick surveillance and reports of new human cases. The aim is to be able to predict where the threat is high and who, for example children and the middle-aged, are most at risk.

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