Tick-Tock: Time is of the essence with Lyme disease and climate change

A tick on a blade of grass

A tick on a blade of grass

Lyme disease is becoming more and more common in many parts of Canada. The Government of Canada recognizes this increased spread and is committed to minimizing the public health risks associated with it.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is working on addressing this concern through education, awareness, and national surveillance. We are collaborating with patient groups, medical professionals, and provincial laboratories and encouraging participation of all involved to address Lyme disease.

Our scientists are also conducting research to better understand Lyme disease and the ticks that transmit it to protect the health of Canadians.

One of the research projects being conducted by PHAC Scientists from the National Microbiology Laboratory is to study the impact climate change is having on the spread of blacklegged ticks.

Blacklegged ticks (Ixodes Scapularis) the most likely culprits to carry Lyme disease out of all ticks, are surviving through our seasons more often. This is because our seasons are getting warmer and temperature is a big factor in their survival. Having this knowledge helps public health officials target their responses for at risk areas.

Dr. Nicholas Ogden, Director of Public Health Risk Sciences, discovered why these ticks were coming to parts of Canada and the connection to climate change. Dr. Ogden created climate models to determine where tick populations could survive in Canada. These models, combined with the travel patterns of migrating birds carrying these ticks, have helped us understand how tick populations may grow in the future.

Dr. Nicholas Ogden

Dr. Nicholas Ogden

Thanks to this research, climate change is now being linked to a disease that spreads from animals to humans via insects. “It’s gone from being a mathematical theory to a biological public health reality,” says Dr. Ogden. Without this research, we wouldn’t be able to provide the most informed health advice for Canadians.

Dr. Ogden’s climate models depended on research done by another PHAC scientist, Dr. Robbin Lindsay. He made what he called “tick apartments” - containers that hold ticks in varying development stages. These containers were then sent off to different climatic regions in Canada to see how rapidly they developed from one life stage to another in different climate conditions.

Tick “apartments” out in the field.

Tick “apartments” out in the field.

But researchers aren’t doing it alone. The Canadian public has been extremely important in tracking the spread of ticks across Canada as they share tick samples with their local public health authorities who in turn send information about their own tick surveillance to PHAC scientists. These efforts have helped take the risk maps one step further and confirmed the predictions of scientists. Today PHAC can predict where risks of Lyme disease may increase over the coming century.

You can minimize your chances of contracting Lyme disease by always protecting yourself from getting bit by ticks when spending time outdoors. Find out more about the prevention of Lyme disease at Canada.ca/LymeDisease.

Dr. Robbin Lindsay in the insectary, taking a look at a blacklegged tick under the microscope.

Dr. Robbin Lindsay in the insectary, taking a look at a blacklegged tick under the microscope.

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