New technique could enable real-time distribution monitoring of ticks that carry Lyme disease

The findings of a recent analysis conducted by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope, suggest that ecosystems suitable for harboring ticks that carry debilitating Lyme disease could be more widespread than previously thought in California, Oregon and Washington.

Bolstering the research were the efforts of an army of "citizen scientists" who collected and submitted 18,881 ticks over nearly three years through the Free Tick Testing Program created by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, which funded the research, producing a wealth of data for scientists to analyze.

This new study builds on initial research led by the late Nate Nieto, Ph.D., at Northern Arizona University, and Daniel Salkeld, Ph.D., of Colorado State University.

This immense sample collection represented a multi-fold increase in the number of ticks that could be gathered by professional biologists conducting field surveys in far less time and at a fraction of the cost.

This kind of citizen participation -- which in the future could include smart-phone apps and photography -- could become "a powerful tool" for tracking other animal- and insect-borne infectious diseases important for monitoring human and environmental health, according to study results published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

This study expands on previous work in California and is the first study to produce high resolution distributions of both actual and potential tick habitat in Oregon and Washington.

"This study is a great example of how citizen scientists can help -- whether tracking climate change, fires, habitat changes or species distribution shifts -- at a much finer scale than ever before," said Tanner Porter, Ph.D., a TGen Research Associate and lead author of the study.

Specifically, Dr. Porter said the findings of this study could help raise awareness among physicians across the West, and throughout the nation, that tick-borne diseases are possible throughout a wider expanse than ever thought before.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi (sensu lato), which is carried by ticks, and in this study specifically, the western black-legged tick known as Ixodes pacificus.

These ticks also carry pathogens associated with relapsing fever and anaplasmosis, which like Lyme disease can cause fever, headache, chills and muscle aches. Some patients with Lyme disease may experience a rash that may look like a red oval or bull's-eye.

If not treated promptly, Lyme disease can progress to a debilitating stage, becoming difficult and sometimes impossible to cure. This may include inflammation of the heart and brain.

Lyme disease is the most common tickborne illness in the U.S., annually causing an estimated 500,000 infections, according to the CDC. However, even the most commonly-used diagnostic test for Lyme disease misses up to 70% of early stage cases. There is no treatment that works for all patients.

We hope this study data encourages residents of California, Oregon and Washington to take precautions against ticks in the outdoors, and helps to ensure that local healthcare professionals will consider diagnoses of Lyme when patients present with symptoms."

Linda Giampa, Executive Director, Bay Area Lyme Foundation

Citizen scientists were encouraged to mail in ticks collected off individuals' bodies, pets and clothing. They noted the time and place where the ticks were discovered, and described activities involved, the surrounding environment, and in many cases specific GPS coordinates.

Field studies could take decades to produce the same amount of data, said Dr. Porter, adding, "this citizen science technique could allow for real-time distribution monitoring of ticks and other relevant species, an important consideration with emerging pathogens, changing land-use patterns, and climate change."

Source:
Journal reference:

Porter, W. T., et al. (2021) Predicting the current and future distribution of the western black-legged tick, Ixodes pacificus, across the Western US using citizen science collections. PLOS ONE. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244754.

Comments

  1. Brandon McFerrin Brandon McFerrin United States says:

    I’d be extremely interested in the results of this type of study in a location such as Mississippi. After contracting Lyme, babesia is, and ehrlichiosis, I have been given an extremely hard time by doctors, claiming that these diseases don’t exist here. Many others face the same type of treatment. One day living a healthy life, the next contracting a debilitating illness that they can’t even get a doctor to recognize. Luckily there’s plenty of info on the web, where people can turn to find answers for themselves. I know 20+ people with Lyme in a small MS town. This disease is  a serious problem, and the even larger problem is lack of recognition, lack of treatment options, no insurance coverage for treatment, and being left to deal for yourself, while being labeled a hypochondriac by every doctor you describe your symptoms to. It’s time the truth is known. Lyme and it’s co-infections are everywhere!

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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