Auburn University researchers studying prevalence of tick-borne illnesses in Alabama

Published: October 15, 2015
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As most people who spend time in the outdoors know, exposure to ticks is all too common in the South. The problem is not only the itching and redness from bites, but is much more serious due to the possibility of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Lyme disease is endemic in seven Alabama counties: Calhoun, Chambers, Jefferson, Mobile, Russell, Shelby and Tuscaloosa, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. In order for a county to be considered endemic, there must have been at least two confirmed cases within the county.

Auburn University researchers in its School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences are conducting studies to hopefully shed light on this growing problem in Alabama, one that is more often associated with the northeastern United States.

"Ticks are all over the state, but we want to know why certain spots are more likely to have tick-borne illnesses," said Graeme Lockaby, associate dean of research. "We are gathering data on ticks, tick-borne illness incidences, vegetation and climate from a network of plots across Alabama. We will use the data to develop a predictive model to show where the tick populations and tick-borne illnesses are more likely to occur and if they are spreading."

Auburn researchers are also collecting tick and blood samples from white-tailed deer throughout the state and they plan to implement a small, wild mammal trapping program to gather more tick and blood samples, which will be tested for diseases.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria carried and transmitted by black-legged ticks. Its symptoms include chills, fever, headache, joint and muscle pain and stiff neck which mimic a number of other illnesses, making it difficult to accurately diagnose.

Auburn researcher Emily Merritt, a recent graduate of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, grew up in New York state, a tick infested part of the country, and is very familiar with the realities of tick-borne illnesses. "When I moved to Alabama to pursue a master's degree at Auburn University, I realized that there was a problem with ticks and tick-borne illnesses here," she said, "but no one really talked or knew about it."

As she began researching the topic more, she found that doctors often misdiagnose and mistreat patients who have tick-borne illnesses because many in the medical community and the general public are not aware of the scope of the issue in the state.

Lockaby and Merritt have assembled an interdisciplinary team for the study, which is funded by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. The researchers include Rajesh Sawant and Sarah Zohdy of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Derrick Mathias of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture and Navideh Noori of the School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

"We want to develop a risk prediction tool that will help us better educate residents, medical professionals, state and federal agencies and others on the areas of greatest risk," Merritt said.

Dee Jones, state public health veterinarian with the Alabama Department of Public Health, added, "The ADPH continues to investigate cases of all tick-borne diseases, including Ehrliciosis, Babesiosis, spotted fevers, Anaplasmosis and Lyme disease in Alabama. Each tick-borne disease case is analyzed using patient symptoms and clinical signs, past history of potential tick habitat exposure and qualified laboratory tests used to diagnose human infections. We continue to stress disease prevention methods such as proper clothing, using approved repellents, proper tick removal and the early recognition of clinical signs and prompt medical care."

The Alabama Lyme Disease Association recommends the following steps to help prevent exposure to ticks and Lyme disease:

  • Be aware of and avoid tick habitats such as tall grass, bushes, brush and woods. Avoid sitting on stumps or fallen logs.
  • If you go into such habitats, wear shoes and appropriate clothing (hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants tucked into the socks). Wear light-colored clothing to make ticks more visible.
  • Use tick repellents with DEET on skin and treat the outside of clothing with repellents containing permethrin.
  • Before coming indoors, brush off your clothing. 
  • Once inside, remove all clothing, check for ticks and promptly wash and dry clothing. (Family members can help each other with the tick inspection.) Remove and dispose of any unattached ticks. There is always risk of exposure when handling ticks so wash hands thoroughly after handling.
  • Continue to check for ticks several days following potential exposure.
  • Check bedding several days following potential exposure for ticks that may have fallen off.

The Alabama Extension System offers this advice for tick removal: If you find a tick has chosen you for its host, remove it using tweezers. Use the tweezers to grip the tick's head and pull straight out with gentle persistent pressure. Wash the area and save the tick in a plastic bag in your freezer for a week or so. Watch the area for the bulls-eye rash, but don't be alarmed if the area is red. The bull-eye rash that indicates Lyme disease takes over a week to develop. If the tell-tale rash develops, see your doctor and take the tick with you for the doctor to do some tests.

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