Lyme Disease: How Great A Threat Is It To Public Health?

It's been described as "under-researched" and a "significant threat to human health". But is Lyme disease really as huge a threat as it's been made out to be?

Over the past few years, there's no disputing Lyme disease has been cropping up more and more in the press.

Celebrities including Bella Hadid and Avril Lavigne have spoken out about suffering from the disease.

Meanwhile figures show that over the past 12 years, cases have quadrupled. In fact more than 1,100 people were diagnosed with Lyme disease in the UK in 2013, according to a NHS laboratory report.

Lyme disease occurs from being bitten by an infected tick

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread to humans by infected ticks which, if not treated early on, can result in heart failure, viral-like meningitis, facial palsy, nerve damage and arthritis.

According to the NHS, Lyme disease can often be treated effectively with a course of antibiotics if it's detected early on.

The main symptom is a distinctive circular rash, which looks like a bull's eye on a dart board, at the site of the tick bite. This usually appears around three to 30 days after being bitten.

According to Public Health England, roughly one third of UK cases do not have a rash and may suffer from a fever, headache or neurological symptoms instead.

"The vast majority of tick bites do not transmit Lyme disease but, if patients are truly concerned, there are serological blood tests that detect antibodies to the infection, which can be arranged through your GP," says Dr Helen Webberley, the dedicated GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy.

"The main problem is that Lyme disease is often not thought about by the medical profession because the symptoms can be very vague," she says. "In fact, in most cases there are no significant symptoms at all."

Tick bites can cause a distinctive rash

Recently, Phones4U founder and billionaire John Caudwell discovered that he, as well as his ex-wife and three children, had Lyme disease.

With Lyme disease cases soaring, there are now concerns over the number of ticks found in Britain's parks.

Bite protection expert Howard Carter said he found sheep and deer ticks in every London park he visited over the past year. He believes that the issue is the same for other urban parks across the UK.

"The number of ticks is increasing all the time and quite dramatically," Carter told The Sunday Times newspaper.

"People really do need to be aware of the impact these things can have on health. If you are bitten it is not a little itch that goes away after a couple of days, it can be life-changing or even fatal."

To combat the growing threat, Public Health England issued a factsheet on tick bite prevention which advises people to carry out a "tick check" after spending longer periods of time outdoors, and suggests taking simple steps to avoid coming into contact with ticks.

They have also issued advice for how to remove a tick using tweezers.

Stella Huyshe-Shires from Lyme Disease Action says there are other things being done to raise awareness, too.

According to Huyshe-Shires, PHE run awareness programmes on ticks and Lyme disease in conjunction with local councils.

"Research is also being conducted by several universities into how to get a safe message across without deterring people from outdoor exercise," she says. "And the Department of Health also issues awareness notices each year in a nationally circulated GP bulletin."

Husyhe-Shires believes the statement about Lyme disease being "one of the greatest threats to public health" is simply a "headline grabbing statement", which she doesn't agree with.

"If Lyme disease was ever shown to be transmitted person to person, then yes it might be," she says. "But there is no evidence that this is so."

Despite the various resources being deployed to try and tackle the raise in Lyme disease cases, Dr Logan from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine believes the Government isn't doing enough to prevent the issue.

"The majority of Lyme disease sufferers will say the system didn’t work for them - the diagnosis was too late, they didn’t the get the tests early enough - and for some that means it’s too late and they have been left with a life threatening condition.

"We need a review of the system."

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There Are Two Types Of Ticks With Lyme

Facts About Lyme Disease

But Husyhe-Shires says the problem of Lyme disease is actually more complex than that.

"Firstly, ticks carrying Lyme disease are everywhere in the UK," she says. "It is a relatively new disease in the UK and public and health professionals are insufficiently aware of it."

"Secondly, doctors are unaware that there are genuine uncertainties in diagnosis and in treatment and often fail to diagnose and treat appropriately," she adds.

"This especially applies to consultants who have a fixed view that Lyme disease can be diagnosed definitively by the blood tests and is treatable with a couple of weeks of antibiotics."

Finally, she says that the people reading incorrect information online and seeking advice abroad adds fuel to the fire and creates a bigger problem.

She says members of the public read about the many symptoms of Lyme disease and think it "might apply to them".

"They then seek a positive test result from unaccredited laboratories overseas," she explains. "This fuels the fire and doctors back off further thinking, 'patients read incorrect information on the internet'.

"Because some people genuinely do go undiagnosed and untreated, patients are always able to point to this to show that their view of a massive problem is correct.

"There really is a lot of incorrect information bandied around online and in the press, doctors are always able to point to this to show that the problem is massively overstated."

She adds: "Everyone becomes polarised and no one will meet in the middle ground, where the science is, and try to genuinely address the real problems."