Mapping the uptick
Dr. Rebekah Taylor and her Frostburg State students are taking on a rising summer threat
One summer a few years ago, Dr. Rebekah Taylor, a scientist and associate biology professor at Frostburg State University, experienced a health scare with her son. He had returned from camping at Rocky Gap State Park with his grandfather, and, as could be expected, her son had a bug bite. “A few days later he did not feel well and had a fever,” Rebekah said. “It was the middle of July, so I didn’t think the fever was normal.”
Although his pediatrician initially thought the culprit was a virus, a few days later in the bath, Rebekah noticed golf-ball-sized pink circles on her son’s torso as well as a bullseye rash around the initial bug bite. Another trip to the doctor confirmed her fears; her son was in the disseminated stage of Lyme disease.
Six weeks of antibiotics later, her son was back to normal, but the experience planted an unsettling seed in Rebekah. “It just sort of made me mad,” she said. “This was never an issue for us growing up. Ticks were just a nuisance, not a danger.”
Now several years later, Rebekah is using her son’s experience and her expertise in a research project geared toward mapping and pinpointing how many ticks are in our area and how many of those ticks carry Lyme disease and other dangerous pathogens.
In our region, three ticks – black-legged or deer ticks, dog ticks and lone star ticks – populate our forests and fields. The deer tick is most often the culprit of Lyme disease. In a 2016 study, Rebekah found that 23 percent of the deer ticks collected and tested from Rocky Gap tested positive. Though still dangerous, the dog tick does not carry the Lyme disease pathogen. The lone star tick is less common, found more in the southeastern United States beginning in areas near Virginia.
“What we are finding all over the United States is that there are more ticks in more places,” Rebekah said. “With climate change, there are organisms that can now live in places they could not before and vice versa.”
Our climate has recently been the perfect storm for ticks. “Ticks are extremely susceptible to drying out,” Rebekah said. “That means if we have a winter that was cold and snow free, ticks are likelier to die off. If the winter is wet, they hide under the snow and protect themselves. As our winters continue to get milder, this is going to get worse, and it already has.”
The rise in tick population and the dangers associated with it have motivated Rebekah to expand her research. “While about 80 percent of my job is teaching, like most faculty, I do projects as a way to help my students learn how to do research, collect data and publish it.”
Along with three or four students each semester, Rebekah has been gathering local ticks and testing them to see what pathogens they carry. “My ultimate goal is to make a map that will be accessible to anyone so they can go in and see where the ticks are found and what pathogens they have,” she said.
Part of the project relies on public assistance. People from all over the region have been sending the ticks they find to help Rebekah’s research. “We’ve probably collected 300 in the mail from people who send them in,” she said. “Several come in each day, but up to half of those are dog ticks, which we eliminate because they do not carry Lyme disease.”
Once the ticks arrive, the students grind them up, and extract their DNA to test for pathogens. While Rebekah’s data is collected continuously, a pattern has already emerged.
“Though there are pockets of places where it’s higher, the 30 percent rate is what we are finding, and that is comparable to the rest of the northeast United States,” Rebekah said.
This fall at Frostburg, she will be teaching her first full class dedicated to the project, so she is hoping to get as many specimens mailed in as possible. She is inviting everyone who reads her story to join in and help with the project.
While the data is critical for scientific study, Rebekah is not certified to send results back to the person who mailed her a specimen. “This is not clinical; it’s purely for science,” she said. “We are trying to collect as much data as possible.”
As the samples roll in and her data bank grows, Rebekah is equally pleased with both the results of her study and the process. “The great thing about this is that it’s easily done with students,” she said. “It gives them meaningful data that matters to somebody. We are training them to help people. This data can affect someone’s life.”
If you want to help the project:
According to the Frostburg State University website, Ticks must be dead and securely taped to an index card with regular tape. Label the card with the date and approximate location where it was found and enclose it in a sealed plastic bag. Tick samples may be whole, partial or crushed. If a tick is still alive, it should be frozen for 24-plus hours before mailing. Mail tick samples to Dr. Rebekah Taylor, Frostburg State University, 101 Braddock Road, Frostburg, MD 21532.
You can decrease the chances of being bitten by a tick by taking a few precautions.
Avoid tick-infested areas
If you are in tick-infested areas, walk in the center of trails to avoid contact with overgrown grass, brush, and leaf litter at trail edges.
Use insect repellent
Use Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents. You can also treat clothes (especially pants, socks, and shoes) with permethrin, which kills ticks on contact. Permethrin can also be used on tents and some camping gear. Do not use permethrin directly on skin. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when applying repellent.
Perform daily tick checks
Always check for ticks after being outdoors, even in your own yard. Because ticks must usually be attached for at least a day before they can transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, early removal can reduce the risk of infection. Inspect all body surfaces carefully and remove attached ticks with tweezers. Avoid crushing the tick’s body. DO NOT use petroleum jelly, a hot match, nail polish, or other products. Grasp the tick firmly and as close to the skin as possible. With a steady motion, pull the tick’s body away from the skin. Do not be alarmed if the tick’s mouthparts remain in the skin. Cleanse the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Bathe or shower
Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you. Ticks can get a ride indoors on your clothes. After being outdoors, tumble dry clothing in a hot dryer for 10 minutes to kill any ticks that are attached to clothing.
Recognize the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease and act quickly
The early diagnosis and proper treatment of Lyme disease are important strategies to avoid the costs and complications of late-stage illness. As soon as you notice a characteristic rash or other possible symptoms, consult your healthcare provider.
Early Lyme disease
The early stage of Lyme disease is usually marked by one or more of the following signs and symptoms: a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, fatigue, chills and fever, headache, muscle and joint pain and/or swollen lymph nodes. Erythema migrans is a red circular rash that often appears at the site of the tick bite, usually within 3 to 14 days after the bite of an infected tick.
Late Lyme disease
Some signs and symptoms of Lyme disease may not appear until weeks or months after a tick bite:
Arthritis, numbness, pain, nerve paralysis (often of the facial muscles, usually on one side), and meningitis (fever, stiff neck, and severe headache) and problems with memory or concentration, fatigue, headache, and sleep disturbances which sometimes persist after treatment.
How Lyme disease is treated
Several antibiotics are effective for treating Lyme disease. These are usually given by mouth but may be given intravenously in more severe cases. Patients treated with antibiotics in the early stages of the infection usually recover rapidly and completely. Most patients who are treated in later stages of the disease also respond well to antibiotics.
For more information please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website on Lyme disease at www.cdc.gov/Lyme.