Lyme disease is an infection of humans and animals that is caused by Borrelia bacteria transmitted via the bite of an infected tick. If untreated, Lyme disease can cause chronic fatigue, skin conditions, aches and pains, and also affect the brain and heart.
In regions of the world where Lyme disease is widespread and well-recognised (eg United States, Europe and Asia), pet dogs are also often infected by the same organism and are often regarded in these regions as 'sentinels' of infection - meaning, the dogs can act as an 'early warning' of potential infection in humans in that area.
Any animal, including cats, can be infected by Lyme disease. It is generally not fatal in dogs but it does cause chronic illness and lameness, says Dr Peter Irwin, an internationally recognised expert in infectious and parasitic diseases of dogs and cats at Murdoch University and a founding member of the International Society for Companion Animal Infectious Diseases.
Currently, it is not clear whether humans are able to contract Lyme disease in Australia.
"Lyme disease is not officially recognised in Australia but a number of people in Sydney and northern New South Wales have been diagnosed with the disease by only a handful of doctors," says Dr Irwin.
To try to help answer questions around Lyme disease in Australia, Dr Irwin is conducting a research study that is looking for evidence of infection by Lyme bacteria in NSW by testing 500 pet dogs. He has already tested about 400 dogs and to date, has found no evidence of the North American Borrelia bacteria.
“If I don’t find evidence of infection in dogs, then it will suggest that these people who have been diagnosed with Lyme may have something else," he says. “It’s assumed that because we don’t have the same ticks as in the northern hemisphere, we don’t have Borrelia but we may have an organism that is related and causes Lyme-like symptoms."
Lyme Disease Difficult To Detect Accurately
Unfortunately, a lack of diagnostic services for Lyme in Australia means the disease is nearly impossible to detect accurately. There’s no single definitive blood test you can do - just "loads of tests which give bits of an answer but nothing conclusive," explains Dr Irwin.
On a positive note, the Australian Government Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Baggoley, recently established a Clinical Advisory Committee on Lyme disease to provide advice on the evidence for Lyme disease in Australia, diagnostic testing, treatment and research requirements.
Last month, Murdoch University was also awarded a research grant to analyse ticks and look for evidence of Borrelia and other organisms and microorganisms that can cause Lyme disease in Australia. The project, led by Dr Irwin, is called 'Troublesome ticks: a new molecular toolkit' and uses the latest molecular diagnostic techniques to identify 'hot-spots' for tick-borne pathogens, identify areas of potential risk for humans, and investigate vector-host-pathogen interactions nationwide.
For this project, researchers are in need of tick specimens from around Australia, off any hosts (including humans) and from archived collections. If you would like to participate or would like more information, contact Dr Irwin at [email protected]
or phone (08) 9360 2590.
For more information about Lyme disease in Australia, visit the Lyme Disease Association of Australia website www.lymedisease.org.au