GCC Research: Ticks, diseases they carry are on the rise

The types of ticks and the diseases they carry are increasing in Pennsylvania, according to studies conducted by Grove City College Professor of Biology Dr. Tracy S. Farone and her students over the last five years.

That finding is part of a body of research that is currently being published in scientific journals.

Public awareness of the disease-spreading parasites ticks up each spring as more Keystone Staters take to the outdoors. That’s good, but Farone said the risk of exposure to ticks – which are extremely common in Pennsylvania and may carry a number of diseases that can be spread to people and animals – isn’t limited to the warmer months.

“Ticks are around all year, but they are especially hungry and seeking hosts in the spring,” she said. “Tick-borne Lyme disease is very common in Pennsylvania. We’ve been number one in the U.S. for reported human cases since 2011.”

Lyme disease isn’t the only illness that ticks carry. Farone tested for and found evidence of several other diseases in her study. Many mimic the symptoms of Lyme disease and are treatable with the same antibiotics. That’s not the case with the Powassan virus, which hadn’t been documented in Pennsylvania’s tick population until the Grove City College study.

“The problem with the Powassan virus is that it makes Lyme disease look like the common cold. It’s not treatable with antibiotics and can lead to neurological disorders and even death. It’s not nice,” Farone said.

Farone and her students – working with the state Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Health and Pennsylvania Game Commission – studied a collection of about 3,000 ticks collected from deer harvested by the state’s hunters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention heard about their work and sought out the College’s collection for further study.

Farone’s research on the Powassan virus will be published later this year in the international journal, Zoonoses and Public Health. The tick study produced two more papers, which were accepted for publication in the Journal of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. One documents the presence in Penn’s Woods of a “new” tick. Dermacentor albipictus, popularly known as the “winter tick,” is common in the northern U.S. and Canada but hadn’t been previously documented throughout Pennsylvania.

While the winter tick isn’t currently known to carry any illness harmful to humans, Farone said interactions with other ticks, such as sharing the same host, can change that. “Since interactions between various tick-species may also present new disease opportunities, the possibility of any tick becoming a carrier of an emerging disease should never be overlooked,” she said.

The other paper examines a unique tick-borne bacteria, Borrelia miyamotoi, which is similar to the Lyme disease pathogen, and several other bacteria and parasites common in the state’s deer ticks that are capable of causing animal and human illness.

“Wildlife officials, public health officials, primary care physicians, veterinarians, hunters, hikers, owners of companion animals and livestock should be aware of the prominence and geographical distribution of both deer ticks and winter ticks in the Commonwealth and of the potential public and animal health implications associated with them,” Farone said.

Since being forewarned is forearmed, Farone offers these tips to avoid trouble with ticks:

  • Stay in the center of trails while hiking and away from brushy areas.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to more easily see ticks; wear long sleeves and tuck long pants into boots or socks to make it more difficult for ticks to crawl underneath clothing.
  • Use recommended DEET, or products with 0.5% permethrin as repellants.
  • Find and remove ticks as soon as possible after spending time outside, bathing makes it easier to wash off and find ticks before, or shortly after, they attach.
  • Parents should check their children, focusing under their arms, around their waist, and in their hair.
  • Only veterinarian-approved tick repellents should be used to prevent companion animals from bringing ticks and other potential zoonotic disease insect vectors into the home
  • Anyone exposed to a tick-infested habitat should seek medical care if experiencing signs and symptoms related to Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses, including fever, chills, fatigue, aches, pains and rash.

Nine students – now alumni – worked on the research with Farone. They are: Amanda Hutzelmann, Amy Lind, Amanda Everett, Ryker Minch, Colin Fort, Ryan Braumann, Rachel Masciarelli, Stephanie Pitman and Abby Cleveland. Their work was supported in part by the Jewell, Moore and MacKenzie Fund for scientific research at the College.

Farone's work was also featured in The Herald, Sharon, Pa. Read "They call her 'The Tick Lady.'"

GCC Research: Ticks, diseases they carry are on the rise

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