Canadians Seek Lyme Disease Treatment in Mexico, Sparking Concern Among Health Officials

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Canadians Seek Lyme Disease Treatment in Mexico, Sparking Concern Among Health Officials
A nurse attending to a lyme disease patient

For years, Mexico has been a hotspot for medical tourism, particularly for elective surgeries like breast augmentations and rhinoplasties. Now, clinics are shifting their focus to alternative treatments for severe conditions like cancer, diabetes, and increasingly, Lyme disease.

Alternative Interventions Gain Popularity

Patients with Lyme disease are now looking to treatments like hyperthermia (inducing a fever to kill Lyme-associated bacteria), stem cell therapy, extended antibiotic courses, and plasmapheresis treatment. Marnie Freeman from Vancouver recalls her decision to seek treatment in Mexico after a Lyme disease diagnosis from a German lab in 2019, even though her Canadian tests were negative.

Freeman shared her experience at the Sanoviv Medical Institute, where she underwent hyperthermia and intravenous antibiotics. She mentions, “One of the reasons I chose that facility was their overall, full-body approach to healing.” She appreciated the holistic care approach she felt was missing in Canada.

Understanding Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, transmitted by infected Ixodes ticks, predominantly the blacklegged ticks. In Canada, the protocol for treating Lyme disease typically involves a preliminary test to confirm infection, followed by a round of antibiotics lasting up to three weeks.

Omar Morales, founder of Lyme Mexico, states that the majority of his patients hail from B.C, Ontario, and Alberta. He believes there’s a global gap in addressing tick-related disorders, particularly in Canada, suggesting that many doctors might overlook the disease.

Concerns from Canadian Health Officials

Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases doctor, argues that the alternative diagnostic methods might be problematic. “If alternative medical practitioners are diagnosing Lyme with vague symptoms, no clear exposure risk, using non-validated tests,” she said, “then it’s not surprising that they would say Canada is missing cases.”

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick, which is a carrier of the virus that causes Lyme disease. (AP via CDC/The Canadian Press)

Disease Trends and Impact of Climate Change

Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) shows a stark increase in reported Lyme disease cases. In 2009, only 144 cases were reported, but by 2021, the number skyrocketed to 3,147 cases. Nick Ogden from PHAC attributes this surge in tick populations, and thus Lyme disease, to warmer temperatures resulting from climate change.

Seeking Alternative Treatments

While antibiotics remain the primary treatment for Lyme disease, not all patients find relief. A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that long-term Lyme symptoms might be linked to chronic inflammation due to the body’s immune response, rather than an ongoing infection.

However, clinics in Mexico like Sanoviv Medical Institute and Lyme Mexico are venturing into unconventional treatments. But Saxinger raises concerns over the efficacy and safety of these methods. Extended use of antibiotics, especially beyond the recommended three-week period, particularly alarms her.

Jordan Bentz underwent treatments for Lyme disease in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, from April to June 2022, after her mother said the teen’s seizures and memory loss kept her from attending school and leading a normal life. (Submitted by Julie Bentz)

The Real Cost of Treatment

For families like Julie Bentz’s, the decision to seek treatment in Mexico came from desperation. After her daughter, Jordan, was diagnosed with Lyme disease, she faced debilitating symptoms that severely impacted her daily life. Bentz mentions the family spent over $200,000 on alternative treatments, asserting, “This disease has bankrupted us. But she is worth every penny.”

Health Canada’s Position and Future Prospects

While some provincial health authorities have deferred to Health Canada’s guidelines on Lyme disease, there’s an expressed concern about medical tourism related to Lyme disease treatment. Quebec’s Ministry of Health emphasizes the importance of careful interpretation of test results, especially those from private, for-profit laboratories abroad.

As Lyme disease continues to rise, Lynora Saxinger hopes for a comprehensive approach that offers relief without driving patients into “complex, expensive, and potentially dangerous regimens.” She adds, “I actually feel like at some level, there’s also a bit of a failure on the medical system side.”