The need for a better system of diagnosing and treating Lyme Disease in Ireland is a cause Athlone woman Shirley Moran Breslin feels passionately about - and for good reason.
Shirley believes the effects of her own Lyme Disease could have been prevented had she received timely diagnosis and treatment after a mosquito bite in Spain seven years ago resulted in swelling and a rash on her leg.
“As a rule people associate Lyme Disease with ticks, but any blood-sucking insect can carry the bacteria and ultimately infect its host,” she explained.
“Not knowing what it was at the time, I went to a chemist and then a GP. Neither recognised the rash or the significance of its pattern and told me it was a normal skin reaction to a bite.
“This 'normal reaction' I had was a textbook 'bullseye' rash which is associated with Lyme Disease.
“Chances are, if I received even one month of antibiotics then, I would not have the problems I have today. That can be hard to take at times, seeing that my world has been turned upside down and not in a good way.”
In the last two years, the 38-year-old Garnafailagh native has been one of several Irish Lyme Disease patients forced to travel abroad to access suitable treatment.
She has been to the Czech Republic for treatment on nine occasions. The travel, accommodation and medical bills incurred are in the region of €70,000, she said.
Shirley is part of the Lyme Disease support group Tick Talk Ireland, which organised a well-attended conference in Athlone’s Sheraton Hotel in March and sought to raise awareness by staging a rally outside Leinster House earlier this month.
At the rally, Shirley had a chance to talk to Health Minister Simon Harris, as well as Minister Denis Naughten and a number of TDs.
“Simon Harris listened to my story and the problems we are having here. He has asked that I put it all in writing. He has said he needs to look into Lyme Disease further to get a better understanding of it.”
Shirley said that, overall, the rally was a success and could help lead to greater awareness of the condition among politicians and the general public. The leaders of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams, recently tabled Dáil questions asking what is being done about Lyme Disease in Ireland.
“We can only hope that we have been heard and that it will open further dialogue leading to improvements in testing and ultimately treatment,” said Shirley.
“All patients have asked for is accurate testing with adequate treatment for an appropriate amount of time. It’s not a big ask. Is that not a basic right as a citizen?
“I'm one of the many who are now chronic Lyme Disease patients, or sufferers, due to the failure of not providing a simple service, a basic right that any individual should receive.”
When asked how she was feeling on Thursday last, Shirley said she was having “a good day” but events such as the rally in Dublin tend to take a lot out of her and she has to spend several days recovering afterwards.
She feels that without the treatment received in the Czech Republic, her condition would be worse than it is today.
“(The treatment) was very tough but essential. I'd do it again in a heartbeat because I genuinely don’t believe I'd be able to even walk now had I not received treatment there.”
The doctor she has been attending in the Czech Republic recently went back into paediatrics, so now Shirley will have to change to another clinic, possibly one in Germany, to receive additional treatment.
Despite the challenges she faces, she still maintains her positive outlook and is grateful for the support she has received from family, friends, and the local community.
“I've made some really great friends in other patients, their families, and even clinic staff,” said Shirley. “A great lady, Ann Maher in Tick Talk Ireland, says it’s ‘patients helping patients’. Only for other patients, each individual Lyme Disease sufferer would be lost.”
A daughter of Stephanie and Gerry, Shirley is married to Enda, a native of Sligo.
“My family have an even greater bond now which is an amazing thing to not only have but be lucky enough to know. I have Lyme Disease and then my Mam found out she had breast cancer. We all took every day in our stride. Mam’s all clear now and I'll say the treatment available for cancer patients is excellent in this country.
“My parents have always given me and my sister a great example to live by - to be kind, positive, help others and when you get knocked down just get up and go again.
“I'm also lucky to live in a good community. I have great friends, family and colleagues from work. I've a good husband and we get on great. Well, most of the time!” she laughed.
“We know we're no different than any other couple, we just have a different set of problems. It's most definitely not the life we imagined or planned.”
In order to reduce the risk of contracting Lyme Disease, Shirley encouraged people to take precautions when walking in long grass or shrubbery.
“Be aware, wear light coloured clothing, long sleeves, tuck trousers into socks and if possible use repellent,” she advised.
“Check yourselves, your clothes, etc, to ensure no ticks have attached to the skin, especially in crevices or folds of skin. It’s best then, after being in this type of environment, to wash with soap when you get home,” she said.
* For more information on Lyme Disease, visit the Tick Talk Ireland website at: www.ticktalkireland.org