Experts are warning that Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks and tick bites, is an emerging health problem in Wales, particularly in areas such as Snowdonia. There were 800 cases of Lyme disease recorded in Wales last year, but it is believed up to 2,000 people have visited their doctor with symptoms.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is now calling on the government to make Lyme disease a notifiable disease. It said that treating the disease, which can cause symptoms from a rash to blindness and paralysis, is often complicated by the fact that it can be misdiagnosed and is under-reported.
Julie Barratt, director of the CIEH in Wales, said: “Lyme disease is an emerging public health problem, and one that is of considerable significance in Wales in areas such as the Snowdonia National Park. It is important that the walkers take steps to protect themselves and that GPs are aware of the problem and recognise what they are seeing if affected persons present themselves.
“This is very much a case of prevention being better than cure – walkers should cover up to prevent the risk of bites, and should they be bitten, look for the typical ‘bullseye’ rash. They should also tell their GP that they have been walking if they begin to suffer typical symptoms so that treatment can be properly targeted.”
Lyme disease – also known as Lyme borreliosis – can cause various symptoms, the most common of which is a rash called erythema migrans. Humans become infected after being bitten by tiny hard-bodied ticks, which are infected with B. burgdorferi.
Ticks become infected when they feed on birds or animals that carry the organism in their blood.
It is the most common arthropod-transmitted infectious disease in northern Europe and the US – it was named after a cluster of cases in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1974.
It can lead to a condition known as neuro borrelia in 15% of people bitten by infected ticks. In rare cases the disease may become chronic, with a slowly developing destruction of the nervous system, numbing, partial hearing impairment and the development of dementia.
Dr Robert Smith, a scientist at the National Public Health Service (NPHS) for Wales, said: “Since 2003, the number of people being infected has increased year on year. We have also seen a significant rise in infections known or believed to have been acquired overseas – in the US, France, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. Ticks are very small – about the size of a poppy seed – and can easily be overlooked, so it is important to be aware of the risk of tick bite. Check for attached ticks regularly and remove them promptly. Infected ticks are very unlikely to transmit the organism if they are removed within 24 hours of attachment.”
Graham Jukes, chief executive of the CIEH, said: “We strongly urge the government to take greater responsibility for pest management and to raise the profile of diseases such as Lyme disease.
“Lyme disease in this country is spreading and the number of cases is rising significantly. This is a misunderstood disease that can cause untold misery to its victims. We urge the government to make this a notifiable disease.”
But an NPHS spokesman said it has an accurate picture of Lyme disease in Wales, and making it notifiable is unlikely to provide any new information.
How to reduce the risk of being bitten by a tick
Wear appropriate clothing in tick-infested areas – long sleeved shirt and long trousers tucked into socks. Light coloured fabrics are useful, as it is easier to see ticks against a light background.
Check that ticks are not brought home on clothes.
Consider using insect repellents, such as those which contain DEET.
Inspect skin frequently and remove any attached ticks. At the end of the day, check again for ticks, especially in skin folds.
Make sure that children’s head and neck areas, including scalps, are properly checked.
Check that pets do not bring unfed ticks into the home on their fur.