Raffaella Harris developed extreme fatigue and joint pain while living in Windsor, Ontario. May 2018. At the time, the least of her suspicions were tick-borne illnesses — let alone ones that were uncommon in Ontario.
But as she turned to her doctor for answers, a bacterium called Rickettsia rickettsii was replicating in her body, introduced through a tick bite she didn’t even notice. Within days of her first symptoms, Harris was reeling from the pain.
“By the fourth or fifth day, I knew something was wrong,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Tuesday. “My head was jumping and my body was shaking so badly.”
new research McGill University and University of Ottawa discover tick-borne pathogens such as Rickettsia rickettsiae and Babesia is spreading Part of the reason is climate change, moving beyond their usual range and into central Canada.
The study, “Emerging tick-borne pathogens in central Canada: recent detections of Babesia odocoilei and Rickettsia rickettsii,” was published Nov. 9 in the medical journal Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases.
Babesia odocoilei is a tiny parasite that causes babesiosis, a disease similar to malaria. Rickettsia rickettsiae causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can be fatal if left untreated.
Unlike Lyme disease, neither pathogen is listed as a National notifiable infectious disease in Canada. According to the Government of Canada, national notifiable diseases are those that have been identified as a priority for surveillance and control by federal, provincial and territorial governments.
While most Canadians are aware of Lyme disease, some, like Harris, are becoming more familiar with these less common non-notifiable diseases.
As her condition progressed to include liver damage, hyperthyroidism and acute thyrotoxicosis, Harris’ doctors ruled out tumors, tularemia, Legionnaires’ disease and toxic mold exposure. He previously trained and interned in the US, where he had the opportunity to study pathogens such as Rickettsia.
He preemptively started Harris on a course of the antibiotic doxycycline, which is used to fight certain tick-borne infections, and sent a sample of her blood to a lab in Winnipeg to test for some of the viruses ticks are known to carry. Pathogen. Laboratory results were positive for Rickettsia rickettsii.
It took nearly a year for her thyroid and liver function to return to normal, but Harris made a full recovery thanks to her doctor’s decision to prescribe doxycycline while he recovered.
“I was lucky to have a doctor who actually took the time to investigate,” she said.
She still doesn’t know where she came into contact with the tick that made her sick. She wondered if it was a 15-minute walk along a city park path in Windsor on a cold early May day, or in her own backyard garden.
She now lives in another city, London, Ontario, which she can never be sure of.
According to Dr. Yoav Keynan, the ticks that infested Harris may have been far from their normal range.
Dr. Keynan is the Scientific Director of the National Collaborating Center for Infectious Diseases and Head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Manitoba.
Ticks that carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever are typically found in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, but their range may be spreading eastward, as a November study suggested, he said.
Brenda Rappos, left, and Raffaella Harris want Canadians to learn about little-known tick-borne diseases like babesiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Rappos has babesiosis throughout 2021 and 2022, while Harris was diagnosed with Rocky Mountain spotted fever in 2018. Ticks that carry both diseases are expanding their range in Canada, researchers say. (Brenda Rabos and Rafaela Harris)
“The areas where you can get tick-borne diseases are changing, based on our climate, development, and land use,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Wednesday. “So the chances of encountering a tick are happening. Variety.”
Federal and provincial governments are already using modeling techniques to better understand how disease vectors such as ticks expand their range in Canada, Keynan said. However, like the authors of the November study, he said pathogens such as Rickettsia rickettsiae and Babesia odocoii require closer monitoring.
“The range of ticks is expanding, and we need to continue to be vigilant and study what these ticks carry to predict possible consequences for veterinarians and humans,” he said.
Brenda Rappos hopes that in 2021, as she works to solve her own medical mystery, Canada’s national list of notifiable diseases will include Babesia odocoilei.
In October of that year, Rappos tested negative for four different strains of Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick. She found the tick on her thigh after a walk in Bob Hunter Park in Scarborough, Ontario, and took it to the emergency room at Centennial Hospital to show it to doctors. She was pre-emptively prescribed an antibiotic and sent home, where she stored the ticks in the freezer.
Within weeks, she developed fevers, cold sweats and joint pains. As her health continued to deteriorate throughout the fall, winter and spring, her doctors searched for answers but found nothing. She underwent dozens of X-rays, CT scans and MRIs to rule out arthritis, autoimmune disease and other potential causes.
“It was a nightmare and I tried to explain it to the doctor, but these are symptoms you don’t see,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Monday. “You know, it’s not like a big sore on your face.”
Rappos retired from work in February, 10 months earlier than she had planned. She was too sick to work. Before the tick bite, she was a marathon runner, and now she has to take two Advil tablets morning and evening to get through the day.
A lab document from Geneticks Canada shows that the ticks Brenda Rappos sent to the company for testing were carrying Babesia odocoilei. (Brenda Rabos)
By October 2022, she has little idea of what made her so sick.
“October, it’s been a year, I’m not getting better, I’m getting worse,” she said. “I could barely move. My joints were in pain. My elbows, my fingers – et cetera – were dying.”
Rabos took the ticks from her freezer and sent them to Geneticks Canada, a private laboratory that tests ticks for a variety of pathogens that Canadian hospitals may not be able to detect. Babesia odocoilei tested positive. After suffering from untreated babesiosis for a year, doctors prescribed a combination of antibiotics and quinine to treat malaria.
“Today I would say I’m probably 65 percent better,” she said.
Rabos was relieved to have an answer, but she worries Canadians won’t be able to pay for private testing, or won’t realize they’ve been bitten in the first place. She hopes stories like hers will raise public awareness about lesser-known tick-borne pathogens like Babesiosis odocoilei and the risks of contracting them.
“We have a great healthcare system that takes care of everything, but it makes me sad to see this now,” she said. “What makes me sad is that we know (these diseases) exist, but we don’t support anyone figuring out how to identify them.”