People with debilitating conditions linked to tick bites may hope for answers and future treatments with the federal government announcing the first major funding to investigate these bewildering symptom clusters.
Thousands of people have reported suffering from chronic symptoms linked to tick bites including fatigue, arthritis, chronic pain, neurological and cardiac problems, and psychological illness.
The Morrison government has committed $3 million for two studies over five years that will investigate the nature, prevalence and causes of these symptoms to demystify the problem and develop tests and treatment for adults and children with DSCATT (debilitating symptom complexes attributed to ticks).
There are 71 species of ticks in Australia; 16 are known to bite humans and three or four are responsible for the majority of bites, including the paralysis tick.
Tick bites are most common on the east coast, with particularly voracious in NSW and Queensland. Sydney’s northern beaches area has also become a tick-biting hot spot.
Manly, Mona Vale and Hornsby hospital emergency departments recorded 1500 patients with tick bites over 20 months in 2016 and 2017.
“It is clear that there is a need for targeted research to further understand the problem and develop appropriate diagnostics and treatments for patients with these symptom complexes,” Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
Murdoch University researchers led by Professors Peter Irwin, Una Ryan and Dr Charlotte Oskam will receive more than $1.9 million for a prospective study to closely monitor people who have been bitten.
The Vector and Waterborne Pathogens Research Group will track physical and psychological symptoms and investigate possible links to infectious organisms and immune system abnormalities.
“We are not entirely clear which symptoms are associated with tick bites. No one knows really what is happening,” Professor Irwin said.
“This is why this research is so important. We are hoping to provide a proper profile,” he said.
The research team will also analyse blood samples, skin biopsies and the ticks themselves.
“What is terribly important is that Australian ticks are full of bacteria and microbes, but there is still a question as to whether any of these could be the cause or causes of DSCATT,” Professor Irwin said.
“Our analyses over the last four years strongly suggest there are organisms in ticks that might cause tick borne disease in Australia,” Professor Irwin said.
“It would not be surprising if Australian ticks carried infectious organisms that made people ill, like ticks in other places in the world are known to do. Most importantly for the many thousands of sufferers around Australia, understanding the cause or causes is the first step towards informing management and treatment decisions in the future.”
They also hope to work towards diagnostics and symptom profiles.
Professor Irwin’s team, in collaboration with the Australian Rickettsial Research Laboratory and the University of Queensland, hope to recruit between 900 and 1000 patients nationally over four years from hospitals and GP clinics.
The study is expected to start recruiting participants at the beginning of the 2019 tick season in July/August.
A second grant has been awarded to University of Melbourne researcher and psychiatrist at Austin Hospital Professor Richard Kanaan to develop a treatment for DSCATT.
The therapies will be adapted from existing techniques that have treated conditions with similar mysterious causes, notably chronic fatigue syndrome.
Though there have been serious concerns raised about the evidence showing cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome.
“The problem is as long as the causes are unexplained people will spend their time trying to find the cause and cure and they can spend their lives and fortunes fruitlessly searching,” Professor Kanaan said.
Professor Kanaan and his fellow researchers will first work to define who these patients are and develop a way to measure their symptoms.
A randomised controlled trial will test the effectiveness of the new therapy among 120 patients.
“Once we know who we are treating we’ll adapt a treatment approach to DSCATT and see if it works,” Professor Kanaan said.