Lyme disease & tick surveillance in Alberta
Ticks 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.
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
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:
- Using tweezers, gently grasp its head and mouth parts as close to your skin as possible.
- Without squeezing the tick, slowly pull the tick straight up off the skin – do not jerk or twist it.
- Do not apply matches, cigarettes or petroleum jelly to the tick.
- 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.
- 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.
- Add a small piece of tissue or cotton ball, lightly moistened with water, into the container to prevent the tick(s) from drying out.
- Submit the tick for testing as soon as possible.
How to submit a tick for testing
Collected ticks can be submitted to:
- An Alberta Health Services Environmental Health Office – Find the location of Alberta Health Services (AHS) Environmental Health Offices accepting tick submissions from the public . Please call first to make an appointment to drop it off.
- A First Nations health centre – If you live in a First Nations community in Alberta, contact the health centre in your community.
- 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.
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 two things:
- What kind of tick it was;
- 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 when 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.
- If you find a tick, submit it (see how above). If you are concerned that you have been bitten by a tick, see a physician.
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.
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.
- 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 very low risk that other tick-borne diseases, such as 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.
What we are doing in 2015
Alberta Health and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry will be continuing to monitor the results of the passive surveillance program to determine if more targeted surveillance should be done. This will help Alberta Health to determine whether blacklegged ticks have become established in areas of Alberta that will enable us to better understand and communicate the risks to Albertans.
Results from 2014 tick surveillance
In 2014, 1,376 ticks were submitted to the Alberta tick surveillance program:
- 9 (0.7%) blacklegged ticks found in Alberta were positive for B. burgdorferi
- 72 (5%) blacklegged ticks (i.e., Ixodes ticks) found in Alberta were negative for B. burgdorferi
- 614 (45%) ticks were found outside Alberta
- 681 (49%) 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.
Results from 2013 tick surveillance
In 2013, 960 ticks were submitted to the Alberta tick surveillance program:
- 25 (2.6%) blacklegged ticks found in Alberta and were positive for B. burgdorferi
- 114 (11.9%) blacklegged ticks were found in Alberta and were negative for B. burgdorferi
- 441 (45.9%) non-blacklegged ticks were found within Alberta
- 380 (39.6%) ticks were found outside Alberta
What this means for Albertans
- Between 1991 and 2014, 63 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 2014, there was an increase in the number of ticks submitted by Albertans but a decrease in the number of blacklegged ticks and of ticks that were positive for B. burgdorferi.
- Based on the evidence to date, there is nothing to suggest that blacklegged ticks have moved into Alberta and are surviving and reproducing.
- In Alberta, the risk of being bitten by a blacklegged tick is very 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.
- Submit-a-Tick program handout
- Submit-a-Tick poster
- Environmental Health office locations accepting ticks
- Tick bites – MyHealth Alberta
- Lyme Disease – MyHealth Alberta
- Tick Surveillance Summary Report 2014
- B.C. Centre for Disease Control
- Government of Canada: Lyme disease
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – USA
Tick submission forms for health professionals and veterinarians only
- Surveillance of Ticks on Human and in the Environment Reporting and Shipping forms available for order at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Veterinarian submission of ticks found on animals
- Physicians – refer to the ProvLab Guide to Services or contact the Microbiologist-On-Call.