Image: Sarah Knights in her wheelchair (via Facebook).
When you’re unwell, being told exactly what’s causing your symptoms, and receiving appropriate treatment, can offer some relief. Yet for an estimated 15,000 Australians who have tested positive for Lyme disease, that kind of certainty is almost impossible to come by.
Lyme disease is an often debilitating illness that’s transmitted through the bite of a tick infected with the bacterium Borrelia. These ticks are known to exist in areas of Europe, Asia and the United States, where it’s believed there are 300,000 new cases every year.
However, the illness is highly contentious here in Australia. According to national health authorities, there is insufficient evidence to prove Borrelia-carrying ticks are present in Australia — although it’s acknowledged a locally-acquired form of the illness can’t be entirely ruled out. For this reason, there is currently no “agreed case definition” of the illness, making it near impossible to diagnose, let alone treat.
Medical opinion remains divided; many doctors believe administering treatment for Lyme disease in Australia is irresponsible and potentially harmful, and local doctors who diagnose it say they do so at professional risk.
Yet Australian Lyme disease advocacy groups and sufferers, many of whom are living with agonising, debilitating symptoms with no end in sight, are desperate for the disease to be recognised here in some form. Melbourne woman Sarah Knights is one of them.
Sarah had never heard of Lyme disease until a blood test came back from the US last November, informing her she had tested positive for it. The 22-year-old had been struggling with a number of viruses and illnesses for a decade — unusual symptoms and viruses would leave her bedridden and out of school for months at a time, and Sarah eventually was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
One afternoon in May last year, during Sarah's final year at uni, things took a steep turn. She began feeling unwell, but put it down to another onset of the symptoms she’d been experiencing on and off since high school.
“Then I got up the next morning bright and early for footy, and I just couldn’t put sentences together. When I tried to run out onto the field I just couldn’t get my legs to move or do what I wanted them to do. I physically couldn’t run,” Sarah recalls.