Poor diagnosis exposes hundreds to potentially deadly Lyme disease
HUNDREDS of people are contracting potentially life-threatening Lyme disease here each year but ignorance and inadequate diagnosis means many are going untreated or being treated for the wrong condition, a Dail committee has heard.
There have been 19 cases of Lyme Disease reported to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre of the Health Service Executive (HSE) to date this year, more than double the eight cases reported in 2012.
Yet the actual number is likely to be hundreds, due to the lack of public awareness of the disease as well as among GPs and even consultants, University College Cork Zoology Professor Dr Eoin Healy told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children yesterday.
Describing the disease as "endemic" in Ireland, he said the bacterial infection transmitted to humans and animals from the bites of ticks feeding on deer, sheep, cattle and goats, was first identified here in 1982.
It often attacks the nervous system and can result in arthritis, joint and muscle pain as well as cardiac complications, with 40pc of Lyme patients developing long-term health problems.
However, the symptoms can be varied and patients are often wrongly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, autism and dementia and/or depression, the committee heard.
Although it can be treated with antibiotics if it is caught in the early stages, "poor awareness of the existence and of its symptoms, both on the part of the general public and in the past on GPs, means that very often the disease is initially overlooked or misdiagnosed," Prof Healy told the committee.
Initial symptoms may include a rash with bullseye rings around it coupled with flu-like symptoms, but people may not necessarily have such symptoms.
Dr Armin Schwarzbach, an expert on Lyme disease who set up the world's first tick-borne disease clinic in Augsberg, Germany, described the disease as "chameleon-like".
Less than half of most patients don't even remember being bitten by a tick, while a similar number do not present with the tell-tale bullseye rash, he said.
Even when Lyme disease is suspected, the common blood test used here – the "Borrelia-ELISA" test often misses between 35 and 60pc of cases.
Lyme disease patient and mother-of-three Tracy Brennan (39), from Dublin, told the committee she believes she was bitten by a deer tick in 1994 when living on Long Island, New York, as a J1 student.
She doesn't recall the bite, but suffered years later.
"Mentally and physically I was ready for the bin," she said.
She spent €30,000 visiting 11 hospitals and private clinics, who kept telling her to go home and rest, until another GP who was familiar with Lyme disease suggested she go for tests.
But the Borrelia-ELISA test came back with two false negatives and it wasn't until she got another blood test from Dr Schwarzbach that the diagnosis was confirmed.
"It's a nightmare," she said.