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'Lyme disease nearly made me come indoors,' says Ray Mears

Survival guru highlights tick-borne diseases

Ray Mears, the British survival guru, has revealed how a tick bite led to a 14-year battle with Lyme disease that nearly ended his career.

Mears, who presents television shows including Survival and Wild Britain, was speaking at the start of Tick Awareness Week. He described how a tick bite led to excruciating back pain and declining health that almost forced him to give up work. "The pain I had in my back was so bad that if I sneezed I almost blacked out with the pain," he said. "I was getting to the point where I was going to have to think about doing something different for work... I don't know when I contracted whatever it was, but I think it was Lyme disease. I had it for 14 or so years."

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks. According to the Health Protection Agency, up to 3,000 people contract the illness, also known as borreliosis, each year. Campaigners say the problem is worsening, as warmer winters and wetter summers allow ticks to spread further afield and many doctors remain ignorant of the disease.

Sarah Randolf, professor of parasite ecology at Oxford University, said cases of Lyme disease were compounded by "a poor and haphazard assessment" of its recent prevalence, as well as the increase of deer population which can transport bacteria-carrying ticks.

Mears, who is the patron of the charity for tick-borne diseases Borreliosis and Associated Diseases Awareness-UK (Bada-UK), is leading calls for more awareness of the disease, which can cause severe arthritis, neurological damage, heart problems and fibromyalgia (muscle and connective tissue pain). "I feel that there is not enough awareness of Lyme disease in this country, given the fact that in rare cases it may become chronic," he said.

"I've been teaching outdoor skills for 28 years, the last five years we're hearing more and more cases of people with problems, particularly outdoor professionals who are in the woods a lot. It's becoming a real worry now."

Wendy Fox, chairwoman of Bada-UK, said: "Residential properties are encroaching more on tick habitat, and wildlife are adapting well to the urban environment, which brings them and the parasites they carry into closer proximity to people." She added: "We hear from too many people who have been told by medical professionals that there is no Lyme disease in the UK."

Mears began to suspect that he might have Lyme disease two years ago. "[It] felt as bad as having malaria but it wasn't malaria. I had a tick on my leg about a month earlier, and I was really ill at that point so maybe it was a double dose."

But within weeks of finishing a month of antibiotics, his life changed. "I could go to the gym and exercise with no problem and do anything I wanted."

Mitey menace

* Between 1,000 and 2,000 people a year get Lyme disease. It is a bacterial infection spread by ticks – small, spider-shaped insects that feed on the blood of mammals, including humans.

The ticks, pictured, are commonest in woodland and heathland where there are a large number of tick-carrying animals such as deer and mice. The highest tick populations are found on Exmoor, the New Forest, the South Downs, Thetford Forest in Norfolk, the Lake District, Yorkshire Moors and the Scottish Highlands. They are commonest in spring and early summer. A tick bite often leaves a red rash like a bull's eye on a darts board. Lyme disease has flu-like symptoms. If untreated it can spread to other parts of the body, causing neurological side-effects such as temporary paralysis of the face. If caught early, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics which in most cases leads to complete recovery. Even if it becomes more serious, it can still be treated with antibiotics though it may take longer. But there is controversy over long-term use of antibiotics.

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor