Tick-borne disease in rural areas: is there cause for concern?

  • Photo of Natalie on her wedding day and photo of her in hopital.
    From happy and healthy to 'deathly ill'.
  • European tick warning signs
    Tick warnings in rural areas are common overseas, why not here in Australia? (L to R: Northern Italy, Ireland). 

[Images: G Duley, K Rukkemann]

Lyme Disease Association of Australia
Brit Ballard and
Dr John Duley PhD

Long-haul tick-borne disease patient Natalie, a former New South Wales park ranger, was told early in her career, ‘No need to worry about ticks here.’ And yet, due to disease-causing pathogens contracted via tick bites in Australian bushland, she no longer has a career. Since becoming sick, she has also lost her relationship and her own home. Unwell for 20 years, Natalie now lives with her mother and struggles to care for her young daughter.

Although tick bites are common in rural Australia, they are not officially considered a human health threat and only a few tick-borne diseases and pathogens (TBDs and TBPs) are recognised.

At least 17 species of Aussie ticks bite humans and they can carry bacteria, parasites, viruses and other microbes that may be transmitted via bites. Fortunately, not all ticks carry pathogens harmful to humans. But if you are unlucky and become sick, progression to chronic and debilitating physical and mental health issues is a strong possibility. TBPs can directly affect the brain and cause depression, psychosis, anxiety and more; suffering any kind of long-term health problems can also potentially lead to mental health decline.

Most Australian doctors aren’t trained to recognise or treat TBDs. They may be unable to diagnose a cluster of mysterious and seemingly unrelated health symptoms, which is a typical TBD scenario. After a few standard lab tests return normal results, general practitioners may dismiss the complaints as being due to stress. Misdiagnosis is common, as TBDs may mimic fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, ALS, dementia and other conditions. Early intervention may reduce the possibility of a long-haul illness but, sadly, it took Natalie several years to receive accurate diagnoses.

Natalie’s symptoms include severe fatigue, nausea, motion sickness, sensitivity to light and sound, changing moods, stabbing shoulder pain, chest pains, wobbly legs, insomnia, tremors, aching arms, spine spasms, numbness, migraines and seizures.

In the past 12 years Natalie has been diagnosed with a number of tick-related infections. However, like many patients with medically contested diagnosis, Natalie has been turned away from doctors and hospitals with discharge summary conclusions of hypochondria, addiction or other psychiatric labels. In one serious medical emergency, she was discharged with a script for antidepressants.

Lack of respect, acceptance or understanding of their experience – from authorities, practitioners and even friends – can be traumatic. Especially while struggling to manage declining health and its ramifications, such as the inability to work and care for loved ones, and loss of income. It’s a toll that individuals, families and rural communities – who may already be dealing with drought, floods, bushfires and pandemics – can’t afford. Patients worsen when their symptoms are not taken seriously and they are not treated adequately, become hopeless when their conditions are not recognised and, tragically, some take their own lives.

Bitten by a tick? As soon as possible, remove the tick using a specialised tool or grasp with fine-tipped tweezers as close as possible to the skin. Freeze sprays can be used for tiny tick babies, larvae and nymphs. Disinfect the bite area and monitor closely over the coming days and weeks for rashes or other physical symptoms and changes in mood or mental state. Experiencing a flu-like illness is typical of TBDs, but signs are many and varied: joint and nerve pain, seizures, fatigue, brain fog, and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular symptoms are common. Seek medical help as soon as possible if you have any of these symptoms.

To become TBD aware, visit www.lymedisease.org.au.

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