Tick researchers seeking solutions

Group discussion at Library
Fri, 05/25/2018 - 8:45am
Category: 

The search for solutions was evident in the words expressed by a group of people who assembled at the Island Free Library to discuss how to combat the island’s tick problem. A team of research scientists from Columbia University, who have been conducting Block Island-based tick-related field research since 2010, and a behavioral scientist from the University of Colorado, jointly hosted Monday’s event.  

The attendees sat in a circle and addressed each other by number to protect anonymity while answering a variety of questions posed by Mary Hayden, a Behavioral Scientist from the University of Colorado. Hayden’s research has primarily dealt with the study of mosquitoes, but she has joined forces with Columbia Professor Maria Diuk-Wasser and Pilar Fernandez, an Earth Institute post-doctorate fellow, to study the tick problem on Block Island. Hayden said the group discussion will be helpful in informing the researchers’ efforts.

“If you get rid of the deer, then Lyme disease will go away,” said a woman, who noted that the Deer Task Force, an advisory committee to the Town of New Shoreham, has tried to address the issue. “That’s what Block Island needs to get more serious about.”

“I think eradication is the only way,” said one man, while another man noted that, “We need to make a fact-based decision.” One woman said she thought it was best “to be open to a lot of possibilities.”

“Would you be willing to pay more in taxes for the intervention related to deer control on the island?” Hayden asked the attendees. Not one person replied in the affirmative, with some believing that it would be a waste of money.

“We’ve spent money before, and it didn’t work,” said one woman, while another woman remarked, “I would not pay more in taxes for that. There are other solutions that should be explored.”

As for using chemical or toxic solutions to try to address the issue, the answer was a resounding “No!” from one woman, who said the concern was that it could be harmful to the environment. “It’s totally unnecessary.”

“We’re looking for answers, but there are so many variables,” said another woman. “How do we get rid of them? There seems to be no definitive answer. We don’t have it.”

Hayden asked the attendees their thoughts on subjects ranging from spraying and mouse bait boxes to the Tick App, a mobile application created by Dr. Diuk-Wasser and Fernandez at Columbia University. The Tick App was unveiled in August of 2017, and designed to understand what activities and locations on Block Island lead to the highest risk of tick exposure. To learn more about the app go to: www.thetickapp.org.

Fernandez said the researchers will be hosting free Lyme disease testing at the Block Island Medical Center on Monday, May 28 from 10:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. The research from the test will help the researchers better understand which areas on the island are most risky and how to better protect people from tick bites, with science-based interventions that are tailored to the island.

The following information was submitted to The Block Island Times by the researchers:

“The Eco-epidemiology lab at Columbia University, headed by Maria Diuk-Wasser, has been working on Block Island since 2010, investigating the links between the island’s environment, animal host populations, and human cases of tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease and human babesiosis. During the extensive field work that takes place every spring and summer since 2010, our field crew collects ticks and trap small mammals to better understand the ecological factors that contribute to the incidence of these diseases and assess the public health risk to residents.  For this reason, we have also been working closely with Dr. Peter Krause and colleagues from Yale University, who have been leading a serosurveillance program on tick-borne diseases on Block Island since 1991 and consists of bi-annual serosurveys wherein residents who spent at least one month during the transmission season (May through October) on the island may be tested for Lyme disease and babesiosis at no cost.”

“Ticks have three stages which emerge and are active at different times of the year: larvae, nymphs and adult ticks. They all need to take a blood meal to molt into the next stage and female ticks need it to lay eggs. The stage that represents the most risk to people are the nymphs, which can be infected after feeding on an infected animal as larva, and are most active from May to July. The nymph densities on Block Island have ranged from 170 to 410 nymphs per hectare, in our sampling sites between 2010 and 2016. The infection rate has ranged between 11 percent and 29 percent during the same time period. Bi-annual serosurveys (spring and fall) that were conducted on Block Island found that Lyme disease prevalence fluctuated between 8.4 percent and 29.1 percent and human babesiosis have fluctuated between 0.5 percent and 10 percent.”

“As part of our research we are most interested to understand better how, where, and under which circumstances are people most at risk of encountering ticks. Although trivial, our understanding is very limited because our information is anecdotal and because not many studies have addressed how people’s activities and prevention measures affect their risk, and how it changes with past tick encounters and more knowledge about ticks and the diseases they can carry. One of the limitations to understand this is the method that has been used to gather the information. Traditionally, this information has been collected by questionnaires at the end of the high risk season or at one point in time, so we don’t have sufficient information to relate tick exposure to different activity patterns. How people are exposed to ticks is a key piece of information to understand how different interventions to reduce the tick burden will impact on human health.”

For this reason and to gather more detailed data, we have developed a smartphone application to collect data through simple and fast surveys with a citizen science approach: The Tick App. Through the app we also provide resources to learn more about the biology and ecology of ticks, how to identify them and how to protect yourself from ticks. You can send us a picture of the tick and help us monitor the tick population and the different tick species found on Block Island. For non-app users, you can sign up on our website www.thetickapp.org to receive the surveys by email or download a paper survey package to complete and mail back to us. We are only asking people to complete one tick diary a day for 15 days, during that time we will ask if you found any ticks that day, what did you do (from a list of activities) and if you used any preventing measures. The app will be available to download from the App Store or Google Play on Memorial Day, and you can find instructions on our website.”