Lyme disease

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Overview

Lyme disease is an infection caused by a spiral shaped bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried primarily by ticks of the Ixodes species.

People bitten by an infected tick develop this inflammatory disease, which first affects the skin and then may spread to the joints, nervous system, and other body systems. About half of people infected develop a “bull’s eye” rash within 1-2 weeks. The rash usually is red and may surround the location of the tick bite. Other symptoms may include arthritis-like joint pain, fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and stiff neck.

Since these symptoms are similar to those of other illnesses, diagnosis of Lyme disease is often delayed. This is a problem because, if untreated, more severe symptoms can develop, including painful arthritis, joint swelling, heart problems, and central nervous system problems that could lead to mental disorders. Fortunately, with early detection and treatment, Lyme disease can be cured. There are several oral antibiotics available to treat this disease.

Standard precautions, such as wearing protective clothing, using a tick repellent, and checking for (and removing) ticks at regular intervals, are the best defences against Lyme disease. In addition, there are tests that can diagnose Lyme disease. One measures the levels of antibodies in the body that have developed against the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. This test may appear negative if it is done in the first few weeks after infection. Therefore, if symptoms persist, the test should be repeated a few weeks later. A Western blot test also may be performed to confirm an initial screening test because it is more accurate and specific for antibodies to the Borrelia burgdorferi organism.

Lyme disease is common in the US, Europe and Asia. In Australia there are no reported cases of locally acquired Lyme disease, however on rare occasions, people bitten by ticks in Australia may experience significant prolonged symptoms that may resemble Lyme disease. It is generally not necessary to have testing for Lyme disease if there is no history of travel to countries where this disease is commonly found. Lyme disease has not been found to occur in Australia. In the 1990s, 12,000 ticks were collected from different parts of NSW and were tested for Borrelia bacteria. No evidence of Borrelia infection could be found in any of the ticks collected.

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