Scottish-born 27-year-old Jamie David had been in Australia for fewer than two months when he noticed a red bullseye rash on his leg.
He had begun a PhD in science at Coffs Harbour’s Southern Cross University, and had been spending time in bushland along the New South Wales Mid North Coast.
“I went to a Coffs Harbour GP who said it was most likely a redback spider bite,” he said.
But over the following two months, it became clear he was suffering from something more serious.
“I had high anxiety levels and just couldn’t focus on my work … I was very lethargic all the time, I had blurred vision.”
As a science student, Mr David had studied Lyme disease and suspected he may have contracted it.
Lyme disease is controversial in Australia, because no conclusive study has proven the bacteria causing the condition — Borrelia burgdorferi — exists here.
In November last year, the Australian Senate launched an inquiry into “growing evidence of an emerging tick-borne disease that causes a Lyme-like illness for many Australian patients.”
It crossed my mind that I should just go back to the UK where the disease is fully accepted and they can treat you properly.Jamie David, Lyme disease patient
In their submission, the Australian Medical Association said “there has been no evidence to support the existence of Borrelia burgdorferi (Borrelia) in Australia.”
They spoke out in support of ongoing “scientifically rigorous” research into the issue.
Medical profession dismissive towards patients
A submission made by the Australian Chronic Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Society said discrimination against patients suffering from this illness, was “rife”.
Independent senator John Madigan has also come out firing over the treatment of Australians who believe they have the disease.
Mr David said it was not taken seriously by many of the doctors who treated him.
“They thought I was playing it up, that it was a psychological issue,” he said.
Deciding to ignore his symptoms, Mr David tried and failed to return to his work and studies.
But in October 2014 he completely lost the function of his left leg.
“I had to be wheel-chaired to Coffs Harbour Base Hospital,” he said.
“One doctor, who wasn’t Australian, said straight away that it sounded like Lyme disease. The Australian doctors were very against that.”
After eight weeks in hospital sending blood tests to America, Mr David received a positive diagnosis for Lyme disease.
“Coming from Europe where it’s openly accepted, it was bizarre for me to come here and for there to be such a high level of denial,” he said.
“It crossed my mind that I should just go back to the UK where the disease is fully accepted and they can treat you properly.”
‘Governing bodies need to be brave’
Now Mr David is seeing one of the few doctors in Australia who treat the condition, and said his health, while still fragile, had improved.
“I still struggle with anxiety and lethargy and lack of focus, but that’s just something myself and other Lyme sufferers have to deal with,” he said.
“I used to be very sporty, but I can’t do any of that anymore. I can maybe manage a 40-minute walk, but I’m exhausted at the end of that.”
Mr David said the Senate Inquiry was an important development in starting a national dialogue about Lyme disease in Australia.
“From a psychological standpoint, this will help Lyme sufferers so much,” he said.
“It’s frustrating having so many people say ‘you don’t have anything, you’re just crazy’.”
Mr David said he believed the profession was refusing to acknowledge the issue because doing so would be admitting to an error.
“[Doctors] are afraid of losing their jobs, because it’s not mainstream medicine,” he said.
“But governing bodies and medical practitioners need to be brave about this.”
He said he hoped the inquiry would lead to increased funding for Lyme disease research in Australia.
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