Toronto Public Health is warning residents to protect themselves from Lyme disease by preventing blacklegged tick bites.
Members from TPH held a media conference at Scarborough’s Morningside Park Tuesday, May 10 to talk about the city’s growing blacklegged tick population.
“The risk of acquiring Lyme disease in Toronto is considered low,” Dr. Howard Shapiro, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, told media gathered in the park — one of three areas of the city identified as having blacklegged ticks.
“This is a time of year when individuals and families start to enjoy the warm weather outdoors, so it’s important that people are aware of where ticks have been found in the city and how to prevent Lyme disease,” added Dr. Shapiro. “It’s important that residents know that they can reduce the risk of getting bit by a tick by taking precautions when they’re outdoors in brushy or wooded areas where ticks may be found.”
Along with Morningside Park, Rouge Park and Algonquin Island have been identified by TPH as areas where blacklegged ticks are mostly likely to be found in Toronto. Signs alerting residents have been posted in the three areas.
First identified in Toronto in 2013, blacklegged ticks, which can’t fly or jump, can migrate by attaching to birds and other animals, noted Elaine Pacheco, manager of the city’s vector-borne disease program. As annual temperatures continue to climb, blacklegged tick populations could climb along with them.
“As tick populations are expanding, it is possible that blacklegged ticks can be present outside the areas identified,” said Pacheco. “Ticks become more active as soon as the temperature is four degrees or higher, and we think with climate change and the warmer winters, warmer summers, that could impact the amount of ticks that are expanding into different areas. Similar to West Nile virus, if we have a warmer spring, warmer summer, it could impact the actual numbers of mosquitoes or ticks that we find in Toronto.”
During the event at Morningside Park, two vector-borne disease field operators demonstrated how they “drag” suspected areas in search of ticks. Dressed in white, hooded, plastic coveralls, and gloves and shoe coverings, they dragged a sheet of white flannel attached to a wooden rod with a rope over the ground in a treed area of the park, checking the fabric for ticks as they went.
Dragging is done in the spring and fall, when adult ticks are active. Areas are chosen based on being suitable tick habitats, and on tips from the public.
Seventeen blacklegged ticks were identified by TPH in 2015. One blacklegged tick has been found this spring, on Algonquin Island. The city is awaiting test results to find if it carried the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Testing for the bacteria is done at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba and can take several weeks or months to complete. Only ticks found in Rouge Park have ever tested positive for the bacteria in Toronto.
In 2015, 32 human cases of Lyme disease were reported in the city, but most were thought to have been acquired outside Toronto. Since 2010, an average of 20 cases a year have been reported.
Blacklegged ticks sit on tall grasses and shrubs, with arms outstretched, waiting to grab on to animals or humans that walk by. People can reduce the risk of getting tick bites by staying in the centre of trails in wooded areas, and wearing DEET-based insect repellents and light-coloured clothing that makes it easier to spot ticks, which can be as small as poppy seeds.
After spending time outside in areas where ticks could be, it is recommended that people check their full body and head, and those of their children and pets. Showering can also help clear ticks before they become attached. For pets, tick prevention treatments are available.
If someone finds an attached tick, they should remove it as soon and as carefully as possible. Proper removal of a tick within 24 hours helps thwart the transmission of Lyme-causing bacteria. To remove a tick properly, don’t squeeze or burn it — grab the head of the tick as close to the skin as possible with fine-tipped tweezers, pulling straight away from the skin, gently but firmly. If you’re unsure you can remove the tick properly, seek help from a medical professional.
Once a tick is removed, it should be closed in a clean and clear jar or bottle and taken to a TPH office for testing, which is done free of charge. If TPH determines it is a blacklegged tick, it will be sent to Winnipeg to be tested for Lyme-causing bacteria.
Symptoms of Lyme disease can include headache and fatigue, fever and chills, and muscle and joint pains, as well as a stiff neck and circular rash that resembles a bull’s eye. Though the bull’s eye rash is the most common telltale sign of Lyme infection, Dr. Shapiro noted the rash doesn’t always look the same.
“Individuals, if they develop symptoms, they should contact their family doctor,” he advised. “It’s important, because if detected early, then Lyme disease is quite treatable with antibiotics.”
For more information about blacklegged tick removal, submission and surveillance, visit www.toronto.ca/health or contact TPH at 416-338-7600. Results from Toronto’s spring tick drag will be available on the website once all testing is complete, likely in mid-summer.