The Lyme-climate connection

Climate change is a huge topic for Canadians to wrap their brains around and, frankly, most of us don’t have time to delve into the specifics. If you ask the average Canadian what the impact of climate change will be on their lives, most have no trouble stating that it will cause temperatures to rise, glaciers to melt, and forests to be reduced to ash. 

All of that is true, but it will mean so much more than that and scientists are increasingly becoming concerned that if they don’t find effective ways to communicate how a changing climate will impact every aspect of our daily lives — and soon— then we will collectively do little to mitigate our risk.

Enter the Climate Atlas of Canada. It’s an online, interactive, multimedia initiative of the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre (PCC) that seeks to deliver scientific knowledge about climate change and how it will impact our forests, food supply, cities, and health through a series of easy-to-digest stories, videos, interactive maps and graphics.

Funded in part by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the PCC's initial focus was on getting the word out about how our health will be impacted by climate change through an initiative called Stories of Health and Hope. That initiative combines science with storytelling to show how climate change and human illnesses are inextricably intertwined. The first climate-related illness the Climate Atlas of Canada addressed was Lyme disease.

The Lyme Disease Under Climate Change project combines video, images, text, and maps to highlight the experiences of patients, doctors and research scientists whose lives and work have been impacted by the rise of Lyme disease. The goal is simple: to engage the general public in a health topic that is on the rise in this country without bogging them down with too much complicated data (an occupational hazard for scientists). In 2018, the project was rolled out to urban and rural communities in southern Manitoba who had the opportunity to interact with the application and provide feedback. That feedback was then used to tweak the application to make it more user-friendly across a broad spectrum of users. 

While far from perfect, Lyme Disease Under Climate Change serves as a gentle introduction to Lyme disease for the average Canadian. As such, it does not dive as deeply into the topic as many in the Lyme community would undoubtedly like it to and it goes out of its way to avoid Lyme’s many controversies. But that may not be a bad thing. Lyme’s complexities and countless controversies are often the very thing that prevents many Canadians from learning the ins and outs of the illness. By keeping things simple, interactive, and entertaining the Climate Atlas of Canada has found a way to painlessly arm Canadians with the information they need to better understand their risk without bogging them down with details they would only need to know if/when they fall ill. 

One of the things I like about this presentation of Lyme disease is that it positions the illness firmly within the context of climate change. This means that instead of limiting the discussion of how to prevent Lyme to methods such as tick checks and tucking pants into socks, the project spells out how risk can be further be mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, you can’t isolate the disease from the context within which it exists and the context within which Lyme disease exists is a dramatically altering climate that’s making more and more of Canada hospitable to the ticks that spread the disease.

If we succeed in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being expelled into the atmosphere, projection models tell us that we stand a decent chance of slowing down the rate at which climate change will progress which will slow the rate at which Lyme-infected ticks spread across this country. A map depicting just how much we can slow the impact of climate change on Canada in the far future (2051 - 2080) is included as part of this project and stands as a stark reminder that when it comes to climate change and the illnesses it brings with it, we may not be as helpless as it sometimes seems.

Originally published in The Lyme Report, Issue 32.