A national study led by a Perth-based researcher could be one step closer to ending the Lyme disease debate in Australia.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium – borrelia burgdoferi – passed on by ticks.
Prevalent in the United States and parts of Europe, it causes symptoms such as fatigue, muscle pain and various neurological symptoms.
The Government and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have not recognised the existence of Lyme disease in Australia.
But now Murdoch University Professor Peter Irwin believes a home-grown bacterium is responsible for Lyme-like symptoms in Australians.
“We have about 70 species of tick in Australia,” he said
“The vast majority – well really all except three or four – have evolved here with our unique wildlife and don’t occur anywhere else in the world.
“So you can’t draw parallels with work that’s been done overseas, because nowhere overseas has the Australian ticks.”
Using breakthrough technology, the team from Murdoch is examining thousands of native Australian ticks.
“We applied new molecular techniques to these ticks called next generation sequencing,” Professor Irwin said.
“This is a technique that allows us to look inside the tick and find the DNA, the genetic code, of organisms that live inside the tick.”
In some cases, Lyme disease is identifiable by a rash called a bulls-eye rash for the way it appears.
Several medical practitioners across Australia claim to have diagnosed the illness in patients who have never travelled to areas where it is endemic.
But positive laboratory results have been disputed.
WA President of the AMA Michael Gannon said there had been no evidence to prove its existence here.
“The borrelium bacteria that causes Lyme disease has never been isolated from an Australian vector, like a tick,” he said.
“And it’s never been isolated in an Australian patient that hasn’t travelled to somewhere in North America or Europe.”
But for those suffering – who have had no official diagnosis for years – the controversy surrounding the issue leaves them with no answers and no treatment.
Young Perth woman sick for years
Perth woman Jessica Konecny, 20, has been sick for 13 years.
She remembers a rash coming up before she was diagnosed with a heart problem when she was seven years old.
“We don’t remember a tick-bite but there was a rash that I came up with,” she said.
“Nobody knew what to do about it, didn’t know what it was.
“Initially they thought it was ringworm and it wasn’t.”
Earlier this year Ms Konecny was diagnosed with a Lyme-like disease when samples sent to two separate laboratories tested positive for borrelia.
Whether it is borrelia burgdoferi – the bacterium responsible for Lyme – or something in the same family has not been clarified.
“I think maybe it isn’t Lyme but it’s some form of bacteria causing this disease and I don’t really understand how they can deny that,” she said.
Much more to be done: head researcher
Ms Konecny has started strong doses of antibiotics that are said to kill the bacteria and other co-infections known to be involved when suffering from Lyme.
Anecdotal reports show some success with this treatment, but it does not work for everyone.
Professor Irwin said his research was ongoing.
“We can find organisms in ticks, we can find DNA,” he said.
“But attributing disease causation to those bacteria is really another step all together.
“Unless they’re already known to cause disease how do you know they cause disease?”
He said it would require more research before any answers, or treatment, was readily available.
“It might be linking the types of bacteria you find in ticks with the types of bacteria in people,” he said.
“Then you can start to close the circle.”