Bitten! Citizen Scientists Help Uncover Exposure to Lyme and Other Tick-Borne Illnesses

Ambitious project unveils a heightened risk of diseases in 24 additional states and 83 counties

Think you’re safe from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses unless you live in the northeastern U.S., where it is endemic? Think again. New research demonstrates that residents of many states are potentially vulnerable to diseases carried by the blood-sucking arachnids.

Ticks that carry possibly deadly diseases were identified in 83 counties in 24 states where their presence was previously undocumented.

Research leads on an ambitious project involving citizen “scientists” included Nathan Nieto of Northern Arizona University’s Department of Biological Sciences and Daniel Salkeld of Colorado State University’s Biology Department.

“People should be aware of ticks and tick-borne disease, even when they may think there’s not a recorded incidence of a tick in a county,” Nieto told HealthDay in an interview. “These things — they’re not obeying borders. They’re going by biology. If they get moved there by a deer or bird or people or pets, they’re going to establish themselves and start growing.”

Nieto, Salkeld, and other members of the team got more than they bargained for when they enlisted citizens’ help in tracking down the dangerous pests responsible for tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease. Tapping crowdsourcing for data gathering, the team put out a call for everyday citizens to send ticks to their research facility for testing.

The research team’s original goal was to collect about 2,000 ticks for the study, a press release from Colorado State University explained. In the end, Nieto, Salkeld, and the rest of the team examined more than 16,000 ticks from every state in the U.S., save Alaska, and from Puerto Rico as well.

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People removed most of the ticks they sent in from living hosts — 71.4 percent were from humans, while 17.1 percent were from dogs. A small percentage were removed from other domesticated animals, wildlife, and livestock.

Researchers tested for bacteria that cause Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, monocytic erlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

The 24 states with newly documented ixodes scapularis (deer) or ixodes pacificus (Western black-legged) tick populations include: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, the Bay Area Lyme Foundation reported.

Bay Area Lyme Foundation (BALF) is a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit group focused on the prevention of Lyme disease and the development of better diagnostics and treatments for the most common vector-borne infectious disease in the world. BALF funded the team’s research.

Related: What You Need to Know About Tick-Borne Illnesses

In addition to identifying many U.S. locations where disease-carrying ticks had not formerly been documented, the researchers also discovered that ticks needn’t pick up the pathogens via blood meal. Instead, they’re born carrying the germs that cause so much suffering for humans, some of whom contract either a single disease or multiple co-infections following a bite.

The data from the study are medically crucial to both patients and physicians. Symptoms of some tick-borne diseases mimic a wide variety of other conditions and are regularly misdiagnosed.

Treating such illnesses promptly is vital to ensuring successful treatment. Health care providers in areas newly identified as having tick populations that carry disease-causing bacteria must be on the alert for tick-borne disease as potential explanations.

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.

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