Missourians tasked to assist with statewide study
No matter how you enjoy summer in Missouri, you’re sure to encounter ticks on your outdoor adventures. At least five species of human-biting ticks are here, and Missourians likely are familiar with some of the resulting bacteria, viruses and diseases these bloodsucking parasites carry, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In recent years the infamous arachnids have brewed up fear across the state, and an alliance of university, state and citizen scientists are teaming up to address concerns over health risks associated with tick bites.
“We get a lot of public input about uncertainty around tick-borne illness,” says Matt Combes, ecological health unit science supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We ask the public to recreate on our properties, but at the same time there’s a lot of stuff in the news — especially Lyme disease back east — so people are having trouble deciding whether or not they should do outdoor recreation.”
MDC and A.T. Still University in Kirksville came up with a plan that is simple to state and massive in scale: Find out what species of ticks are found in Missouri at the county level and if they are harboring four known human pathogens. The goal is to generate a map of the species of ticks and the disease-causing pathogens carried by them which will in turn aid physicians across Missouri in diagnosing illnesses that much faster. To accomplish that, they’ve enlisted the help of Missouri’s citizen scientists to send in the ticks they find. Through September 2022, Missourians can send ticks to the university to aid the study.
“Missouri is considered a gap state,” says Deb Hudman, senior research associate in A.T. Still University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology who is conducting the study. She notes that in many cases, instances of a specific tick-borne illness being confirmed in Missouri has doubled in the past decade. “If this data has been looked at before, it’s been very limited in scope to smaller areas.”
By studying the types of ticks found in each of the state’s 114 counties, Deb can then test a subset of those for particular human pathogens that species is known to carry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists more than a dozen illnesses including ehrlichiosis and tularemia that can be transmitted to humans. Data on others such as Bourbon virus and reactions such as alpha-gal allergy are still emerging. The more samples Deb can gather, the more knowledge the medical community can hopefully glean from her findings.
Missourians were happy to help. Only two months after announcing the study, Deb had received more than 8,341 samples from 113 counties.
“That doesn’t include today, and I have 168 letters in my mail,” Deb says. “It’s more than I ever could have imagined. We figured maybe by the end of the year, but we’re only a few months into this.”
“It’s gone viral,” Matt agrees with a laugh. “People are hearing about it second and third hand, calling MDC to figure out how to participate.”
Participation, however, doesn’t mean ignoring the proper precautions for enjoying the outdoors over the next two summers. If you’re heading out for a walk or just a few hours in the backyard, a few extra steps can help protect you. Limit your contact with shrubby, waist-high vegetation and wear the appropriate clothing. Long pants tucked into socks and long sleeve shirts tucked into pants help cover the skin, and light colored clothing gives you a better chance of spotting ticks.
“When you get inside, thoroughly scan your body,” Deb says. “It takes some time for them to start transmitting diseases and it varies how long that time is, but the sooner you get them off the better off you are.”
Those spending extended time outdoors might consider taping the cuffs of pants and shirts closed, applying tick repellent or coating clothing — not your skin — with insecticides such as Permethrin. Some brands of clothing can be purchased pre-treated for ticks, and some companies will treat your clothing for you. Treated clothing can withstand a certain number of wash cycles before the effect begins to diminish and should always be washed separately from other untreated garments.
Landowners with recreational properties or large backyards also can help limit their exposure by keeping any walking paths or tractor trails well-groomed. Ticks thrive in humid environments, and more exposure to sunlight keeps vegetation dry. Matt also advises eliminating invasive plant species such as bush honeysuckle and autumn olive where possible.
“Those are tick factories,” Matt says, “and if you have native plants or flowers planted, just don’t walk through them very much.
“Going outside and doing recreation has a lot of positive health benefits — far more than staying inside your whole life,” he adds. “Go out and enjoy nature but do it so that you keep yourself safe.”
For more information on the statewide tick study and how to submit research samples, visit https://bit.ly/32MiTNK. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a tick-borne illness or have questions about medical issues, consult your doctor or health care provider.