Lyme disease and warning signs
Sir, – Your correspondent Anne Lucey reports on the intention of Kerry County Council and the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) to erect signs in that county warning people of the risk of contracting Lyme disease from bites of infected ticks (News, August 22nd). This move is a welcome development.
However, there is a real danger that by highlighting the risk in one county (Kerry), visitors and the general public will assume that other areas and counties where warning signs are not displayed are essentially tick-free and do not pose a danger to humans.
This would be seriously misleading and could potentially increase the risk in other parts of Ireland where such signs would not be displayed. Where warning signs were not displayed, people would reasonably conclude that such an area was not tick-infested and therefore safe.
A recent published survey by our research group (led by Prof John Lambert) has found ticks infected with the Lyme-inducing bacteria (Borrelia) in locations as far afield as Donegal, Waterford, Wicklow, Kerry and Galway. We can assure readers that ticks occur in other counties too – sampling on previous occasions found ticks in 24 of the 26 counties in the Republic and we have no doubt that ticks also occur in the two counties which were not visited. Tick numbers in some of these counties exceed the numbers of ticks occurring in Kerry and there is a rational basis for concluding that a significant Lyme disease risk exists across much of the country. For example, in one location in Donegal we found thousands of ticks in low vegetation bordering a children’s playground, just metres away from swings and slides.
Second, and from a different perspective, reported research studies on analysis of human blood samples for the antibodies to the Borrelia bacteria indicate a relatively high incidence of tick-bite in parts of Galway. Third, there are frequent actual as well as anecdotal reports of tick-bites from rural dwellers, farm and forestry workers as well as from hillwalkers in popular areas, including the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, the Comeragh and Galtee mountains, Kerry and west Cork, Connemara, and many others besides.
While erecting warning signs in Kerry might address what is a local concern, it overlooks the fact that Lyme disease is a growing risk to public health and is truly a national problem. A consequence of Co Kerry alone erecting warning signs might be that a person who contracted Lyme disease in, say, Cork or Donegal, would have a reasonable basis for suing the relevant local authority for failure to display similar warning notices in their particular county. Indeed, it is surprising that, to our knowledge, no Lyme disease victim has yet taken legal action against the State or a local authority for such a failure.
A countrywide problem requires a top-down national solution and needs to be addressed urgently by the relevant Government departments whose responsibilities cover the areas of health, the environment, local government and the NPWS.
Welcome as warning signage would be, it will not on its own provide a solution to the increasing incidence of Lyme disease. The general public needs to be properly informed about the risks posed by tick-bite and the avoidance-behaviours and thorough skin self-examination and examination of children that will minimise such risks.
Separately, GPs need to be better appraised of the very existence of Lyme disease and the symptoms of the condition.
This would ensure rapid and accurate diagnosis of the disease, allowing early commencement of appropriate treatment which is key to full patient recovery. – Yours, etc,
EOIN HEALY, MSc, PhD
School of Biological,
& Earth Sciences,
University College Cork;
Prof JOHN LAMBERT ,
Consultant in Medicine
and Infectious Diseases,
and School of Medicine,
University College Dublin.