Lyme disease & tick surveillance in Alberta

image of tick on grass bladeTicks are small spider-like animals (arachnids) that bite to fasten themselves onto the skin and feed on blood. While most ticks don't cause serious health problems, it’s important to remove a tick immediately to avoid potential infection or diseases and submit it for testing. In Alberta, there is a tick surveillance program which helps to assess the Lyme disease risk to Albertans and even their pets.

Submit-a-tick program

image of Submit a tick If you find a tick on your pet, yourself, someone else, or anywhere outside, Alberta Health asks you to submit it for testing as part of a tick surveillance program.

Ticks will be checked to see if they are blacklegged ticks. All blacklegged ticks will be tested to see if they carry the bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, that can cause Lyme disease in humans. Results of this program will help Alberta Health monitor for changes to the risk of Lyme disease in Alberta.

How to remove a tick safely

image of how to remove a tick Although the risk of Lyme disease is very low in Alberta, there are other tick-borne diseases that can be transmitted by ticks; therefore, it is important to properly remove a tick as soon as possible.

If a tick is attached to your skin, take the following steps to safely remove it:

  1. Using tweezers, gently grasp its head and mouth parts as close to your skin as possible.
  2. Without squeezing the tick, slowly pull the tick straight up off the skin – do not jerk or twist it.
  3. Do not apply matches, cigarettes or petroleum jelly to the tick.
  4. Once the tick has been removed, clean the bite area with soap and water and disinfect the area with an antiseptic. Wash hands with soap and water.
  5. Save the tick in a clean, empty container. Do not add any ventilation holes to the container that is being used to put the tick(s) in. You can put more than one tick in the container if they are found on the same person or in the same general area in the environment.
  6. Add a small piece of tissue or cotton ball, lightly moistened with water, into the container to prevent the tick(s) from drying out.
  7. Submit the tick for testing as soon as possible.

How to submit a tick for testing

Collected ticks can be submitted to: image of tick on swab

  1. An Alberta Health Services Environmental Health Office – Find the location of Alberta Health Services (AHS) Environmental Health Offices accepting tick submissions from the public  PDF icon . Please call first to make an appointment to drop it off.
  2. A First Nations health centre – If you live in a First Nations community in Alberta, contact the health centre in your community.
  3. A veterinarian – If you find a tick on your pet, you can take the tick to most veterinarians. Contact your local veterinary clinic to find out if they will submit ticks for testing for you.
  4. A physician – If you find a tick attached to your skin and are concerned about the bite and/or have symptoms, take the tick to the appointment with your physician so that it can be submitted for testing.

Tick testing and results

  • This program does not test for Lyme disease in humans. If you are concerned about a tick bite, see your physician.
  • Tests performed on ticks submitted by the public will determine 2 things:
    1. what kind of tick it was; and
    2. if it was a blacklegged tick, whether the tick is carrying the bacteria (B. burgdorferi) that can cause Lyme disease.
  • After a tick is submitted to an AHS Environmental Public Health Office or First Nations health centre, you will receive the result from the Environmental Public Health Officer in about a week (maybe longer in peak season).
  • After a tick is submitted to your veterinarian, you will get the result from your veterinarian in about a week (maybe longer in peak season).

Protecting yourself from tick bites

  • Walk on cleared trails whenever possible, and avoid walking in tall grassy or wooded areas.
  • Wear light-coloured clothing and cover up as much skin as possible, for example, a hat, long-sleeved shirt, long pants with the legs tucked into socks or boots.
  • Use a bug spray that contains the chemical DEET to repel ticks and reapply as frequently as directed.
  • Check yourself for ticks after leaving a grassy or wooded area where ticks may live.
  • Check your pets for ticks after they've been outside. You can't get Lyme disease from your pet, but your pet can bring infected ticks inside. These ticks can fall off your pet and attach themselves to you..

When to seek medical attention

Individuals should seek medical attention if symptoms of Lyme disease develop, especially after a tick bite. Symptoms include:

  • a round, red rash that spreads at the site of a tick bite, known as a “bull’s eye rash”
  • flu-like symptoms: tiredness, headaches, sore muscles and joints and fever.

Find more information about Lyme disease on the MyHealthAlberta website.

Tick-borne diseases

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread by ticks and is the most common tick-borne disease in North America. Lyme disease can affect humans, wildlife, and domestic animals. It is caused by the bacterium B. burgdorferi and is transmitted by ticks. It can cause an infection and in some cases, if left untreated and able to progress, can cause serious, long-term complications and disability.

Lyme disease can be resolved successfully with identification in the early stages of the disease and antibiotic treatment. It is important to note that the risk of getting Lyme disease from a tick bite in Alberta is considered very low. Most ticks found in Alberta do not carry the disease and most tick bites do not cause serious health problems.

Symptoms

  • Early symptoms of Lyme disease may include fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and weakness or paralysis of the muscles of the face. About half of individuals infected with Lyme disease also have a red, round skin rash at the site of the tick bite that can expand over a few days to weeks and resulting in a “bull’s eye” appearance.
  • Later symptoms of untreated Lyme disease may include on-going muscle and joint problems, abnormal heartbeat, nervous system disorders and brain dysfunction.

Diagnosis and laboratory testing

  • Lyme disease is diagnosed based on the presence of symptoms, a physical exam, the possibility of exposure to infected ticks and laboratory testing. If your health care provider suspects Lyme disease, you may be asked to provide a blood sample for testing to see if you have certain antibodies in your blood.
  • It is important to ensure that laboratory testing is done correctly using a two-step testing process in an accredited laboratory. In Alberta, laboratory testing for the first step is done by the Provincial Laboratory for Public Health, which is an accredited laboratory. The second step is done by the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, also an accredited laboratory.
  • We advise against the use of laboratory testing that is offered by some alternate U.S laboratories. It has been found that some of these use tests that do not use recognized testing methods and report inaccurate results. A study completed in 2014* at one alternate U.S. laboratory, of patients who did not have Lyme disease, incorrectly “found" Lyme disease in up to 57% of healthy people.
    • *Fallon BA; Pavlicova M; Coffino SW; Brenner C. A comparison of Lyme disease serologic test results from four laboratories in patients with persistent symptoms after antibiotic treatment. Clin Inf Dis; 2014; 59(12):1705-10.
  • False positives can result in misdiagnosis which can lead to a delay in finding the actual cause of an individual’s illness, as well as unnecessary, expensive and sometimes harmful long-term antibiotic therapy. An increased number of false positives also create an inaccurate and inflated view of the risk of Lyme disease in Alberta.
  • It is important to note that advising against the use of alternate laboratory testing does not mean refusing to test and treat individuals who are sick. All individuals who are suspected to have Lyme disease should be tested using the best available methods, and if they are found to have the disease, will be safely and appropriately treated by our health care system.

Other tick-borne diseases

Other ticks in Alberta can carry other organisms that may cause diseases in humans such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever (transmitted by Dermacentor andersoni), Powassan virus (transmitted by I. cookei) and Tularemia (transmitted by D. variabilis). The number of cases of these diseases reported to Alberta Health each year varies from 0 to 3 cases, mainly acquired locally.

Like Lyme disease, there is a low risk that other tick-borne diseases, such as Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis or southern tick-associated rash-illness (STARI), may be dispersed into Alberta by migratory birds.

What is happening in Alberta?

Passive tick surveillance (ticks found by the public on companion animals, primarily dogs and cats voluntarily submitted by veterinarians to the program) began in 2007 in Alberta. Since 2013, ticks found on humans or in the environment are being accepted at many AHS Environmental Health offices and health centres on First Nation reserves.

Ticks are also removed by clinicians and submitted to laboratories such as the ProvLab for speciation and testing.

What we are doing in 2016

Alberta Health and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry will continue to monitor results from the passive surveillance program to determine if more targeted surveillance is needed. Surveillance will help Alberta Health to determine whether blacklegged ticks are established in areas of Alberta, and will enable us to better understand and communicate the risks to Albertans..

2013–15 tick surveillance results

 image of tick surveillance graph

Colour  Year  2013  2014  2015 
Black:   Blacklegged ticks found in Alberta positive for B. burgdorferi  25  11 
Yellow:  Blacklegged ticks found in Alberta negative for B. burgdorferi 114  72  64 
Red:   Non-blacklegged ticks found in Alberta  441 681 982
Blue:   Ticks found outside of Alberta  380  614 757 
Total  960  1376  1814 

2015 details

  • 11 blacklegged ticks (i.e., Ixodes ticks) found in Alberta were positive for B. burgdorferi, all of which were found on animals.
  • 64 blacklegged ticks found in Alberta were negative for B. burgdorferi.
  • 982 non-blacklegged ticks were found within Alberta. Local Alberta ticks such as moose ticks and Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks (for example, Dermacentor species) do not carry the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease in humans.
  • 757 ticks were found outside Alberta.

What this means for Albertans

  • Between 1991 and 2015, 77 cases of Lyme disease were reported to Alberta Health. All were reported as having been acquired while travelling outside of the province in areas where the bacteria causing Lyme disease and the ticks that carry it are known to circulate.
  • Between 2013 and 2015, there was approximately a two-fold increase in the number of ticks submitted by Albertans. The number of blacklegged ticks positive for B. burgdorferi has not increased.
  • Based on the current evidence, blacklegged ticks are not reproducing in Alberta.
  • In Alberta, the risk of being bitten by a blacklegged tick is low. The risk of being bitten by a blacklegged tick infected with B. burgdorferi, the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease in humans, is even lower.

 

More information

Tick submission forms for health professionals and veterinarians only

  • AHS Environmental Public Health/First Nations and Inuit Health Branch: Surveillance of Ticks on Human and in the Environment Reporting and Shipping forms available for order at cd.data@gov.ab.ca
  • Veterinarians – veterinarian submission of ticks found on animals
  • Physicians – contact the ProvLab Microbiologist-On-Call consult regarding the submission of the tick and the correct laboratory requisition form to submit with the tick.
    • ProvLab Calgary: 403-944-1200
    • ProvLab Edmonton: 780-407-8822 (UAH Switchboard) or 780-407-7121 (Laboratory)
    • Ask for the Microbiologist/Virologist on Call (MOC/VOC) (Clinical Consultation)