Tick borne illness research needed in Australia

Nationals WA leader Mia Davies moved a motion at the party’s federal conference to insist doctors treating Lyme-like disease in Australia are protected from investigation and reprisals from medical boards. Image by Shutterstock.
Nationals WA leader Mia Davies moved a motion at the party’s federal conference to insist doctors treating Lyme-like disease in Australia are protected from investigation and reprisals from medical boards. Image by Shutterstock.

There is a renewed push for research into Lyme-like disease (or tick-borne illnesses) in Australia.

Lyme disease is not recognised by the Health Department in Australia because, to date, there is no evidence that native ticks carry the bacteria which causes the illness.

Murdoch University professor of veterinary clinical science Peter Irwin has conducted research on ticks and infections in ticks in Australia.

Mr Irwin said Lyme disease was a tick-borne infection which was well known in the US and Europe.

“That is because what causes it is well understood, the ticks carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi,” he said.

“When people go for a walk in the bush and get a tick on them, the bacteria are injected into them by the ticks and causes them to be sick.”

Mr Irwin said Australia had unique fauna, and because the continent was separate to the rest of the world, the ticks found here are different.

“We have 66 species of tick in Australia, native ticks that bite native animals, not one of them occur anywhere else in the world,” he said.

“They have inside them, we have discovered through our research, a whole load of bacteria that are similar to but different from any of the ones known overseas.

“They are related, and we have found Borrelia now in Aussie ticks, and we found organisms which are similar to the ones that cause disease overseas.

“But we have not yet found in all the studies we have done over the last few years what I would call the Northern Hemisphere bacteria that cause Lyme disease or any of those other diseases which are so well understood and recognised in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Mr Irwin said while they had not found the Northern Hemisphere bacteria here, native ticks were full of bacteria.

“It is very likely but not yet properly proven or investigated, that Aussie ticks in general can put bacteria into people that could well make people sick.”

Mr Irwin said to date there was no convincing evidence that people could get Lyme disease in Australia.

“This is where it gets tricky because it all becomes a matter of semantics, because it is plausible that people get sick from being bitten by Aussie ticks.

“The trouble is at the moment we do not know what is causing the illness. 

“People who think they have been bitten by a tick and have blood tests done – this is where it gets really murky - many of the blood tests are sent overseas where they test for illnesses they have overseas.

“These patients often turn up with some positive results but you really need to understand what that means.

“Does that mean the person has Lyme disease or have they been infected by some other bacteria or bugs that cross react somehow to the Lyme disease tests they use overseas?”

Last week, Nationals WA leader Mia Davies moved a motion at the party’s federal conference to insist doctors treating Lyme-like disease in Australia are protected from investigation and reprisals from medical boards.

The party will call on the government to insist doctors are provided best practice education on Lyme-like diagnosis and treatment.

They are also calling for patients to have affordable testing, treatment and access to acute and chronic disease support.

Ms Davies said the thousands of Australians living with Lyme-life disease have been forced to suffer for too long without support.

“Very little has changed in the past 20 years and patients are losing hope, with some tragically taking their own lives,” she said.

“To continue sticking our collective heads in the sand that we do not have Lyme-like illness here is heartless.”

For Lyme Disease Association of Australia board member and sufferer Anne Ryan the motion was welcome news.

Ms Ryan said many people in the South West had waited too long for action.

She said little had changed since a senate inquiry into Lyme disease conducted last year made a dozen recommendations.

“It is implausible that a disease that has swept the world for years can cause incredible pain and suffering on every continent except Australia.

“That is exactly what the federal Health Department would have us believe.”

Ms Ryan said she had suffered a whole range of side effects and people who had been infected by ticks differed.

“Fifty per cent of people might start off with a rash and others may not be aware they have been bitten.

She said people experienced flu like symptoms ending up with symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

“I got to the point where I was furniture walking, there are about 300 different symptoms,” she said.

“If you do not get it early the symptoms will set in and mine are now neurological so I live with daily brain fog, it is like a feeling of being drunk.”

Former Health Minister Greg Hunt called for the National Health and Medical Research Council to fast-track research into Lyme-like illnesses in Australia, with funding up to $3 million. 

A NHMRC spokesperson said the the Australian Government had chosen to describe this patient group as having Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks.

The spokesperson said this term was carefully considered to appropriately acknowledge this patient group and the multifaceted illness they were experiencing.

The NHMRC put out a targeted call for research into Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks in May.

The round closed on Wednesday, August 20, the NHMRC expect grant funding will commence next year.

The spokesperson said the research would aim to develop a better understanding of the nature, prevalence and causes of DSCATT and the way they impact on the physical, social and psychological health of patients.

They expect it will create evidence to guide the development of effective tools and procedures for diagnosis, treatment and symptom management.