How sick can you get from a tick?

October 27, 2016

Dr Charlotte Oskam

Dr Charlotte Oskam

Dr Charlotte Oskam from Murdoch University’s Vector and Water-Borne Pathogen Research Group (VWBPRG) has appeared on the SBS program Insight to discuss emerging tick-borne disease in Australian and what can be done in the future.

Many Australians are suffering from chronic symptoms that could be caused by a tick bite, but a diagnosis of Lyme disease is not available to them because the group of bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, that causes the infection in the Northern Hemisphere, has never been found in Australian ticks.

Elite Australian tennis player Samantha Stosur, who appeared in the discussion, fell ill from a tick bite nearly 10 years ago and was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

Dr Oskam said little is actually known about what Australian ticks have inside them in regards to their pathogen potential.

“Ticks are known to cause illness in people all around the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if we do find something that could be causing Australians, when they are bitten by ticks, to become unwell,” said Dr Oskam.

“We have found five new bacterial species that are unique to Australian ticks. At the moment we don’t know if they can be transmitted by ticks, let alone whether they can cause disease.

“In those five new species we have found a new species of Borrelia in echidna ticks, which is unique to Australia.

“We don’t know yet if this Borrelia can be transmitted by ticks that actually bite humans. We’ve found other bacteria in ticks that have been removed from humans, but at the moment we don’t know if it can be transmitted or if it can cause disease.”

When asked how much longer it would take before researchers can come up with an answer to many of the questions around tick illness in humans, Dr Oskam had a simple answer.

“It’s about funding,” she said.

“It’s about getting those funds so we can actually do the research to help people who are bitten by ticks and are unwell.”

The VWBPRG carry out field studies in the bush, using flags or cloth to pull across the vegetation to see if they can find the ticks and identify potential pathogens that could be in Australian ticks.

“When we go out looking for ticks, we are looking for them along dirt tracks and paths,” added Dr Oskam.

“When we are out in the bush and we come across a tick we want to collect, we put it into a tube of 70 per cent ethanol, which kills the tick. We then bring it back to the laboratory so we can identify it using morphological features of the tick.”

By first freezing the tick, researchers use a ball bearing to pulverize the tick into a powder that contains the tick and things such as blood from a previous host and any potential pathogens.

By using a series of molecular techniques the VWBPRG amplify potential pathogens that could be in the tick.

You can view Dr Oskam’s participation in the Insight program here.

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