For many years, Mexico has been a popular destination for medical tourism. However, it is no longer just known for cosmetic procedures like breast augmentations, porcelain veneers, and rhinoplasties.
Clinics are now specializing in alternative treatments for chronic and life-altering diseases such as cancer, diabetes and, increasingly, Lyme disease.
For Lyme disease, the treatments involve methods like hyperthermia (which raises body temperature to eliminate Lyme-associated bacteria), stem cell therapy, prolonged use of antibiotics, and plasmapheresis treatment (exchanging plasma).
Marnie Freeman, hailing from Vancouver, was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2019 by a German laboratory after her Canadian tests yielded negative results. Experiencing symptoms like facial numbness and persistent pain, she decided to pursue treatment in Mexico.
The individual, aged 56, journeyed to the Sanoviv Medical Institute located in Rosarito, which is situated south of Tijuana. During a period of two weeks, they received treatment consisting of hyperthermia and intravenous antibiotics, along with food and accommodation, at a cost of $29,000 in Canadian dollars.
She experienced a positive change in her symptoms, and the staff at the clinic strongly advised her to undergo further treatments for an additional six months. However, she chose not to proceed with their recommendation.
Freeman stated that the reason he selected that facility was due to their comprehensive and holistic approach to healing. This approach encompasses the well-being of the entire mind, body, and spirit, which is not commonly found in our country’s healthcare system, and this greatly appealed to him.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted by infected nymphs and adult females of a small number of species of Ixodes ticks. The ticks mainly responsible for Lyme disease are blacklegged ticks.
The protocol in Canada for Lyme disease involves an initial test to determine if the person is infected, followed by a course of antibiotics lasting up to three weeks.
Health Canada does not track the number of people who choose to seek medical treatment out of the country, but CBC spoke with two Lyme disease clinics south of the border that say the majority of their patients are Canadians.
Omar Morales, the founder of Lyme Mexico, a clinic in Puerto Vallarta that specializes in treating Lyme disease, stated that a majority of his patients come from British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta.
“In his statement, Morales expressed his disappointment regarding the lack of attention given to tick-related disorders globally, especially in Canada. He mentioned that similar negligence exists among doctors in Australia, where they often fail to acknowledge or address this illness.”
In Canada, the tracking of tick epidemiology involves the surveillance of infected ticks and human cases using reliable and approved tests, according to infectious diseases doctor Lynora Saxinger.
Saxinger suggests that when alternative medical practitioners diagnose Lyme disease based on ambiguous symptoms, without clear exposure risks and by using non-validated tests, it is understandable that they would claim Canada is overlooking certain cases.
“I believe they are categorizing many conditions that are not related to Lyme disease as Lyme disease,” she stated.
The prevalence of the illness is increasing.
Saxinger affirms that the scientific backing of the Canadian protocol for Lyme disease treatment is solid. While a few people may experience persistent symptoms after taking antibiotics, the alternative treatments provided in other countries might not effectively alleviate their symptoms and could potentially cause negative reactions.
Saxinger, an associate professor in the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Alberta, expressed her deep sadness when contemplating the extent to which these individuals’ entire lives are being affected by this process.
CBC’s request for comment was unanswered by Sanoviv Medical Institute.
Between 2009 and 2022, there were a total of 17,080 documented instances of Lyme disease throughout Canada. Although these figures are most likely lower than the actual occurrence, the data obtained from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reveals a significant increase in recent times.
The number of reported Lyme cases in Canada increased significantly from 144 in 2009 to 3,147 in 2021.
Nick Ogden, a senior research scientist with PHAC and director of the Public Health Risk Sciences Division, which conducts Lyme disease surveillance, said the single most important factor for the growth in tick populations across Canada is warmer temperatures due to climate change.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide a compilation of the primary indications including fever, headache, exhaustion, and a distinctive skin rash known as erythema migrans. If not treated, the infection has the potential to extend to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.
Although antibiotics are widely recommended by doctors as a treatment for Lyme disease, they only eliminate the bacteria and may not fully resolve all symptoms. Consequently, individuals often explore alternative therapies to address persistent or chronic symptoms.
A study published in the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal in June found an immune system biomarker in the blood was higher in people with chronic Lyme disease symptoms, even after they were treated with antibiotics. This means long-term symptoms in patients with high levels of the biomarker (called interferon-alpha) may not be due to an ongoing infection, but rather to the body’s immune response causing chronic inflammation — even after the infection is gone.
Concern about longer antibiotic courses
Clinics south of the border, such as Sanoviv Medical Institute, Lyme Mexico and Renue Medical Clinic — also located in Puerto Vallarta — offer what they call additional ways of treating the disease.
However, Saxinger claims that these methods are frequently expensive and inefficient.
Saxinger stated that there is no substantial evidence to support the use of these treatments for Lyme disease. According to Saxinger, they are deviating significantly from our recommended approach.
She says one of the most troubling interventions being offered is the extended use of antibiotics, in which patients are being prescribed the Health Canada-approved treatment of doxycycline, cefuroxime axetil and amoxicillin for use beyond the three-week suggested maximum.
A new vaccine for Lyme disease is currently in development in early clinical trials in the U.S. A previous vaccine, called LYMERix, was discontinued in 2002 due to insufficient consumer demand, waning protection over time and reports of side effects, such as arthritis.
She experienced continuous discomfort.
Julie Bentz’s 14-year-old daughter, Jordan, was diagnosed with Lyme disease through standard Canadian testing when she was 12. The family lives in Calgary but went to Lyme Mexico to seek further relief when prolonged symptoms began affecting Jordan’s daily life.
Bentz reported that her daughter had seizures, memory loss, palsy, paralysis, and eventually had to use a wheelchair.
Bentz informed CBC that she experienced continuous agony, rendering her unable to walk. Bentz feared that she was on the verge of death.
The family spent $50,000 for a seven-week treatment at Lyme Mexico in 2022. Bentz mentioned that they have invested more than $200,000 on alternative treatments overseas throughout the years.
Bentz expressed that this illness has caused us financial ruin. However, he believes that she is valuable and deserving of every cent.
During the seven-week period, Jordan received different treatments, which included hyperthermia. Bentz states that although the teenager still has symptoms, her seizures have ceased and she is able to walk with the assistance of mobility aids.
Saxinger says she understands people’s frustrations with prolonged symptoms but says seeking treatment beyond Health Canada’s protocol or doing so without a positive Lyme test may induce adverse effects and prevent medical providers from addressing the underlying health issue.
“Some of [the treatments] can actually be fairly invasive, a lot of the products are given intravenously and there are many case reports of harms related to such things,” she said. “Of course, some people will get treatments, and they will feel better, but there can be many different reasons that people feel better after receiving treatments.”
The medical system side has encountered a slight failure.
CBC was directed to Health Canada guidelines by provincial health authorities such as B.C. and Alberta when inquiring about protocol and treatments for Lyme disease.
The Ministry of Health and Social Services in Quebec expressed concern about medical tourism for Lyme disease. The spokesperson stated that they do not assess diagnoses and treatments provided in foreign countries.
The statement advises that caution should be exercised when interpreting the findings of laboratory tests conducted overseas, especially if they were conducted in privately-owned laboratories that do not adhere to standardized analysis methods.
The ministry has stated its commitment to researching and creating treatment options for long COVID and Lyme disease clinics.
Saxinger expressed her desire for individuals experiencing long-lasting symptoms of Lyme disease to discover relief without resorting to a repetitive pattern of “elaborate, costly, and potentially hazardous treatments.”
I believe that to some extent, the medical system is also partially responsible for this issue. Often, when individuals experience non-specific symptoms and initial tests show no abnormalities, they often feel ignored or disregarded.