Despite tick-borne diseases being prevalent around the world, we still know comparatively little about them. Lyme disease is one of the primary examples of this. Although it’s a global issue, many people (and doctors) still associate the disease solely with Northeastern America. In fact, Lyme disease incidences have been reported in every mainland state in America, and the majority of countries in Europe. Cases are increasing year upon year, with the disease almost reaching pandemic levels. And yet we still know very little about how the disease operates once it infects the human body.
Lyme disease remains controversial, with chronic Lyme not even being recognised as a legitimate disorder by the majority of official medical circles. In Australia, Lyme is a particularly controversial topic, more so than in other countries. So what is the history of Lyme in that country? And exactly what is the Lyme-like disease DSCATT in Australia?
Lyme in Australia
The story of Lyme disease in Australia is a controversial one. Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi strain of bacteria, which is carried and transmitted to humans by ticks. In America, the black-legged tick is responsible for Lyme transmission, while in Europe it’s the castor bean tick. There is currently no official or convincing evidence for cases of Lyme disease in Australia; as far as researchers can tell, Lyme-causative bacteria does not exist in the country. There have been cases of Australian citizens who have caught Lyme, but these all originated overseas.
However, the issue is not as clear cut as that. There is a debilitating condition linked to tick bites in the country, called Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks (DSCATT), and its presentation is eerily similar to Lyme disease – specifically chronic Lyme.
What Is DSCATT?
The Australian government has legitimately recognised that there is a group of patients suffering from symptoms of chronic debilitating illness that may be associated with tick bite. This disparate group of symptoms is united under the umbrella term ‘DSCATT’. The generalised name and vague distinction of symptoms gives some clue as to how difficult the disorder is to pin down; much like chronic Lyme, it often defies concrete categorisation.
The range of reported DSCATT symptoms include chronic pain, arthritis, fatigue, psychological illness, cardiac issues and neurological problems. Despite the obvious similarities to Lyme disease, the name DSCATT was chosen to move away from previous descriptions of the disorder as ‘Lyme-like’.
DSCATT in Australia
Essentially, most doctors are at a loss to differentiate the symptoms of DSCATT from other disorders or potential chronic diseases. This again mirrors the fight against chronic Lyme, where misdiagnosis rates are extremely high. Lyme has gained the nickname ‘the Great Imitator’ thanks in large part to its generalised symptoms, which make doctors look to other, more prominent chronic conditions, such as MS or fibromyalgia, before considering Lyme.
There is currently no diagnostic path or concrete treatment plan for patients with DSCATT in Australia. There are 71 species of tick in Australia, 16 of which are known to bite humans. Of those, only three or four are responsible for the majority of bites. The problem? Research on these ticks and their bites is so scant that doctors don’t know which species contribute to DSCATT symptoms. Basic analysis, as well as patient numbers, suggest that there are numerous potentially harmful bacteria and organisms in Australian bacteria, but more research is required to definitively confirm this.
Future of DSCATT
There is some hope for patients, however, and clear indicators that the Australian government is taking DSCATT seriously. Early last year, $3 million was allocated for DSCATT-related funding, subsidising two studies over a total of five years. The goal of these studies is to develop tests and treatments for both adults and children, and to generally demystify the problem for the public and doctors alike.
Researchers at Murdoch University, led by Professors Peter Irwin and Una Ryan and Dr Charlotte Oskam, will receive over $1.9 million to conduct a prospective study that will monitor people who have been bitten by ticks. They will track both physical and psychological symptoms in patients and explore links to abnormalities in the immune system, thought to be a prime symptom among sufferers. Their study hopes to incorporate close to a thousand patients over the course of its four-year lifespan.
The ultimate goal is to emerge from the research with a clear understanding of what DSCATT is, how it affects patients, and where it comes from. This information can then be used to put a concrete diagnostic plan in place, leading to an effective and rapid treatment approach.
DSCATT and Lyme Disease
Our lack of understanding surrounding DSCATT mirrors our scant knowledge and acceptance of Lyme disease, and indeed other tick-borne illnesses. While doctors in Australia grapple with DSCATT, many medical professionals all over the world face down Lyme disease.
Unfortunately, there are very few Lyme-literate doctors out there. Patients suffering from chronic Lyme have to track down a Lyme specialist clinic, like BCA-clinic in Germany, to have a chance of finding real relief from their symptoms. While research is ongoing, more is required in order to understand and tackle all forms of tick-borne diseases.