Is $3m in tick disease research failing to learn from the past?

This bulls-eye rash, from a tick bit in the US state of Virginia, is a sign of potential tick disease and which requires immediate antibiotics as prescribed by a doctor, advocates a retired veterinarian who did his research on cattle.

Recent federal funding to investigate tick disease in humans might miss an opportunity to solve the strange conundrum if they fail to look at lessons learned while researching cattle tick disease 50 years ago.

​Earlier this month the Federal Government announced $3 million for tick disease research in humans, with a psychological focus on unexplained syndromes typical of the disease.

Retired NSW Department of Agriculture veterinarian Dr John Curnow is concerned the recently announced research will focus on the mental health of unwell patients rather than confirming the presence of an Australian version of Lyme disease, which is well documented in the United States.

In Australia health bureaucrats have given this problem a name: Debilitating Symptom Complexes Attributed to Ticks, shortening it to DSCATT.

“Complex” is the key word, with victims struggling to find answers to their range of health issues from chronic fatigue and arthritis to depression but to these people their condition is real and few people in the medical profession say anything other than “it’s all in your head”.

Dr Curnow’s wife, also a vet, died of poorly diagnosed tick disease while the couple were living at Lismore. Dr Curnow recalls the actual night she was bitten by ticks, along with her dog. Three months later the fox terrier died.

“She could never get a proper diagnosis,” he said. “The root cause of the disease are pathogens in the blood.”

As part of a team of research scientists based at the Department of Agriculture’s research station at Wollongbar via Lismore  in the 1960s, Dr Curnow looked at why a program carried out in the 1950s failed to eradicate invasive cattle tick.

It turned out the ticks during nymph stage hitched a ride on the feathers of birds, as if they were seats on a plane. However, it was during this process that Dr Curnow and his team were required to test half a million head of cattle between Grafton and the Queensland border in order to understand how three different tick borne pathogens were transmitted.

In total 1.5 million tests were carried out to identify the presence of two strains of Borrelia and another of anaplasma. The effectiveness of the test showed Borrelia in cattle would reproduce variants of itself –  as many as 120 forms of the disease over the life of a ten year old cow. Interestingly, all variants reverted back to one type –  a very invasive bacteria that if left untreated affected the brain.

Dr Curnow also found John found that relapsing fever Babesia, or Lyme disease, has similar activity to relapsing fever Borrelia in cattle. 

Of course there are differences with humans in that it takes much less time to reproduce a variant in cattle. Never-the-less Dr Curnow says his old research could be used to refine the Elisa test, which looks for Lyme’s Disease in human patients.

Sadly Dr Curnow’s work was never continued. He applied for a job with the CSIRO tick disease laboratory at Indoorapilly, Qld, which housed unarguably the best brains in the business, but the free spending Whitlam government cut funding and the team disbanded, the expertise lost.

Meanwhile, all experts agree that tick disease can be prevented by removing ticks straight away. Ticks left on the skin or aggravated enough to spit their venom into their host’s blood have been known to create flu like symptons. Dr Curnow advocates antibiotics as prescribed by a doctor who sympathises with the claims made by those complaining of Lyme’s Disease-like complications.​

Prevention better than cure

Tick Awareness Australia founder, Francene Lee Taylor, blames hundreds of nymph tick bites she received while clearing Lantana on  a Wilsons Creek property for triggering her on-going  tick – borne diseases.     

 While the Australian medical profession and others debate the existence of Tick Borne Disease and Lyme Disease existing in  Australia, Francene has designed a Tick Awareness, Education and   Prevention campaign.  

 She is writing a children’s program for prevention to teach children about ticks   

 Tick Awareness Australia would like the council to allow us to put signs up in this area, in strategic places, warning people that it’s a high-risk area for ticks.”  For more information visit

Federal funding targeted at psychological problems

Almost $3 million will be invested over five years for research to better understand the causes of these symptoms, with the longer-term aim of developing treatments.

Federal Member for Page, Kevin Hogan, whose electorate covers a large area of tick disease country on the Far North Coast said: “I have spoken with numerous people in our community who have had their lives, and those of their families, affected by chronic symptoms associated with tick bites, such as fatigue, arthritis, chronic pain, headaches and ongoing psychological symptoms.

“It’s clear we need targeted research to better understand the problem and to develop diagnostics and treatments for those with these symptoms.

Professor Peter Irwin from Murdoch University will receive more than $1.9 million for his research to determine the causes of the symptom complexes attributed to ticks (DSCATT).

The project brings together a national team of experienced clinicians and medical scientists to improve outcomes for patients through accurate and evidence-based information about their illness.

The University of Melbourne will receive more than $1 million for a research project led by Professor Richard Kanaan to develop a new treatment for DSCATT.

This project will develop a case definition, adapt the treatment approach for unexplained syndromes to the specifics of DSCATT, and then pilot a randomised controlled trial to test the effectiveness of the new therapy.


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