Irish Farmer Gets Lyme

A recent interview in the Irish Examiner about a farmer from Inishowen (a peninsula in the north of County Donegal, Ireland) who had been diagnosed with Lyme disease said “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.  It is savage. It was one of the scariest things I ever went through in my life and I never want to do it again”.

Charlie Harkin (pictured), is a plasterer and passionate farmer, and farmers are particularly vulnerable to Lyme disease for obvious reasons.

For years Charlie did not know what was wrong with him, despite extensive tests.  At one stage he was unable to speak and unable to use his right side. Eventually,  in 2013, he finally received a diagnosis.  Now he is on the road to recovery and 80% back to normal, but paying out over €500 a month for immune boosters that are imported from the Netherlands.

In Ireland there are around 200 new cases of Lyme disease diagnosed every year but the true figures are not known.

Charlie was lucky to have been treated by Lyme-literate doctor Dr Jack Lambert who believes “We actually have to open up our mind to this new disease, which is much more common than we were previously aware of.  We need to resource, to educate the GP's on the front-line, who are seeing these patients, to even think about Lyme.  We need to educate the specialists, who are seeing these patients with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, rheumatological conditions and neurological conditions, to even consider Lyme, because it’s not on their radar screen at present. Not every case of rheumatoid arthritis is going to be Lyme disease, but you should at least think about it and do the test and take a history.”

In stark contrast, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), that provides all of Ireland's public health services in hospitals and communities across the country, states on their Website:

As we enter the summer months with people more likely to engage in outdoor pursuits, the HPSC is urging people to protect themselves against Lyme disease, an uncommon infection spread by infected biting tick. Ramblers, campers, mountain bikers, and others who work and walk in forested or grassy areas must be vigilant against tick bites”, says Dr. Paul McKeown, HPSC Specialist in Public Health Medicine. Lyme disease can, in a small number of cases, cause severe debilitating heart and nervous system disease.”

“Lyme disease has been notifiable in Ireland since 2012 and since then, there have been between eight and 18 cases notified in Ireland each year.  However, as many people will not be aware that they are/have been infected or may not seek medical help when unwell, the true incidence of Lyme disease is not accurately known.  It is likely that there are at least 50 -100 cases in Ireland every year" added Dr. McKeown. 

The Website goes on to state “Figures are not available for the number of cases of Lyme disease in Ireland as only a more severe form of the disease known as neuroborreliosis is monitored as a notifiable disease. However, it is estimated that around 200 people have a positive blood test for Lyme disease each year.”   (underline emphasis added)

It seems that only those suffering from long-term effects are likely to be recorded and treated, leaving those that have recently been bitten as potentially undiagnosed.  It is understandable then that the reported figures do not reflect the actual disease and Ireland's Notifiable Disease Register does not list Lyme disease as an ‘Immediate preliminary notification to a medical officer of health’ as a requirement.

If a bulls-eye rash is evident and treated as soon as possible surely this would alleviate a lot of pain and suffering.  Re-iterating Charlie’s comments that 'it is savage and one of the scariest things he has ever experienced' is common to many Lyme patients.  Further, if educational information was widely disseminated, and doctors were educated as Dr Lambert describes, then people who have been bitten or even people who are suffering symptoms of a Lyme-like illness by way of a differential diagnosis would perhaps get early testing and treatment alleviating the long-term pain and suffering.

There are now many Lyme-literate doctors around the world and we do have Lyme-literate doctors and health professionals in Australia like Ireland’s Dr Lambert but we are still struggling with the “no Lyme here” scenario in general.  Until such time as our Government realise that it needs to be put on the Australian Notifiable Disease Register because it is at worldwide epidemic proportions, and educational measures disseminated to hospitals and health practitioners (as per Recommendation 6 of the Australian Government response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee final report), Australians will continue to contract Lyme disease or Lyme-like illnesses.