U of G researches tracking Lyme disease spread with help of Google searches

By Germain Ma

Internet search activity is helping University of Guelph researchers track where Lyme disease is spreading. 

“Turns out when people look on the Internet for something which is troubling them, then there is a problem,” said Dr. Olaf Berke, statistical epidemiology professor at the University of Guelph.

The study looks at overlaps between what people are searching for online through Google Trends and provincial public health data on infection rates.

Researchers found that between 2015 and 2019, the most infections in southern Ontario were between Prince Edward County and the Ontario-Quebec border. 

At the same time, there were more Internet searches from that area with terms like: “tick bites,” “ticks,” and “Lyme disease.”

“We saw there was more Lyme disease activity in the human population where there was more search activity. Simple as that,” said Berke.

But, diagnosing the illness can be the opposite of simple. 

“You have to live kind of in an area where Lyme is active, so that a physician will diagnose you with Lyme. Otherwise, they will not assume you've got Lyme disease,” he said.

Zeroing in on hotspots of the illness can help doctors provide better diagnosis and quicker treatment.

It can also help public health units respond. 

Lyme disease is the country's most common tick-borne illness.

In 2018, there was roughly ten times the number of reported cases than 2009, mostly in Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

You can read more about the study here

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